The Edmond Sun

Nation & World

January 17, 2013

French forces unseen as Mali town prepares for possible Islamist advance

NIONO, Mali — The new frontline in the war on terror runs alongside a 20-meter-wide canal where a dozen or so Malian government soldiers and a handful of French armored personnel carriers now stand guard against an Islamist force that clearly is not backing down.

A signpost points the way north down a gravel road to Diabaly, some 40 miles away, where on Monday a rebel Islamist unit surprised a Malian garrison and overwhelmed it.

Two days later, fleeing refugees reaching here by car, donkey cart and bicycle reported seeing no signs of a much discussed counteroffensive to reclaim Diabaly. The 40 miles between Diabaly and this administrative hub was a no-man’s land, they said.

“I did not see a single Malian soldier,” said Cheikh Omar Dicko, who fled the whole way on a motorbike, with a friend on the back. “Not one.”

France’s short celebratory honeymoon in halting Islamist gains in Mali was dashed at Diabaly, when an Islamist force routed roughly 200 Malian troops from a small garrison in the village. The Malians were ambushed from behind, and many fled through a grove of mango trees and knee-high water.

It was a battle that taught the French some lessons about the anti-jihadist campaign they’ve begun:

— Air power is of limited benefit without ground troops capable of fending off the rebels — and the Malian military cannot.

— Their enemy is cunning, well-armed, brave and already adapting to neutralize France’s air power.

— The terrain, especially on this front, will not be their friend.

The story of the battle for Diabaly is still unfolding. But interviews with officials here and fleeing residents tells of a cunning Islamist force using all its advantages to take new ground, even in the face of a modern Western nation deploying air power.

The story begins in the town of Goma, which sits about 13 miles north of Diabaly. The rebels captured it months ago, marking the southern edge of an Islamist-controlled expanse that stretches from the western banks of the Niger River, north to the historic city of Timbuktu, and northwest to the porous border with Mauritania.

When the French began arriving in Mali on Friday, the Islamists sent reinforcements to Goma. Then, rather than wait for Malian troops to move into Islamist-controlled territory, the Islamists decided to move south.

The most likely attack route, Malian forces thought, would be a road that runs along a canal between Goma and Diabaly. They prepared to meet the Islamists there.

Instead, the rebel convoy, under the cloak of early morning darkness, turned east off the road three miles outside of Goma, at the village of Dogofru. From there, they navigated through the shrubby terrain toward the southeast.

Some parked their trucks and approached Diabaly on foot from the east, while about 20 other trucks looped around the bank of another canal — dubbed the Millennium Challenge canal by locals, because American aid dollars paid for it two years ago — and attacked Diabaly from the south, through the villages of Alatola and Kourouma.

The Malian soldiers tried to block them at Alatola but were pushed back to their base in Diabaly. There, they were ambushed on their flank by the rebels, who had crossed a swamp by foot to attack the town.

The battle lasted several hours, but before noon the surviving Malian soldiers fled.

The prefect for the wider region, Seydou Traore, said about 70 trucks full of insurgents participated in the attack, and he estimated about 50 more had arrived since.

The insurgents are staying in groups of 20 or so trucks, parking discreetly under trees to avoid aerial bombardment, he said.

That’s not the only way the rebels are hiding from air power. The rebels are shutting down the roads to prevent civilians from fleeing. They are then mixing in with the population, even eating food at their houses.

From those fleeing, there were no reports of civilian casualties. There also were no reports that the rebel force had been significantly weakened from the bombardment, which came not only from jets but also from ground-strafing helicopters.

Niono is the next town in line for battle, if the Islamists continue their advance. The area is far from the type of desert warfare France may have been expecting: It’s crisscrossed with canals, packed with rice and onion fields and eucalyptus plantations, its farms surrounded on all sides by countless dikes, ditches and bridges.

In Bamako, Mali’s capital hundreds of miles away, there are rumors that the French are massing for a ground attack on Diabaly. Here, however, there is little sign of such preparations, though the prefect said appearances can be deceiving.

“Who said they are not here?” he asked. “They spent last night here. They are here, you just can’t see them.”

As dusk fell, four French armored personnel carriers were seen heading toward Niono.

Ali Giundo, 30, fled his Diabaly home on Monday, riding his motorbike all the way south to Niono.

“The road is full of rumors of this village and that falling to the jihadists,” he said.

When he arrived at Niono, the soldiers at the bridge, the first he’d seen the whole trip, asked for his ID but did not frisk him.

“The enemy may try to infiltrate us as regular civilians,” warned Traore, whose office is just a few yards from the checkpoint. “This is not conventional warfare.”

Text Only
Nation & World
  • Blackmon.jpg Local cops arrest NFL player on marijuana complaint

    The Edmond Police Department has released the incident report related to the arrest of ex-Oklahoma State star and current NFL player Justin Blackmon.
    Blackmon, 24, a product of Plainview High School in Ardmore, is a 6-1, 210-pound wide receiver in his second year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. At Oklahoma State University, he was a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner as the country’s best collegiate wide receiver.

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • A Q&A on ‘Obamacare’ Court Rulings

    On Tuesday, two federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings on the legality of tax subsidies being provided to people who bought “Obamacare” health insurance policies in Oklahoma and 35 other states.
    Here’s a look at the rulings’ potential impact in Oklahoma.

    Q: I’m confused. What did the courts rule today?
    A: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals circuit in Washington, D.C., decided that the government can’t provide tax subsidies for Affordable Care Act plans purchased in 36 states where the federal government is operating the health insurance exchange. Oklahoma is one of the 36 states. A few hours later, the U.S. Court of Appeals circuit in Richmond, Va., issued a conflicting ruling that upheld the legality of the health-care law’s tax subsidies.

    July 22, 2014

  • June healthy month for Oklahoma jobs

    Nearly 10,000 new jobs in Oklahoma were created in June, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
    Gov. Mary Fallin said Tuesday the state experienced one of the largest increases in employment in the nation in June. More than 9,600 additional people joined the state’s workforce in June.
    The unemployment rate in June dropped to 4.5 percent, its lowest ratio in six years. June’s rate was down a percentage point from 4.6 percent in May and April, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

    July 22, 2014

  • Former OSU line coach having impact on Texas staff

    It was quite possibly the biggest coaching coup of the offseason and Oklahoma State was at the wrong end of it — former Cowboy offensive line coach Joe Wickline joining the staff for Charlie Strong’s Texas Longhorns.
    “It’s always good when you go hire staff and you look at just getting the right people within your program. And, a lot of times, guys know a lot of Xs and Os, but it’s all just about developing a player,” said Strong, Tuesday during the Big 12 Conference Football Media Days. “Joe and I, we’ve coached together at two different places. But just with him being within his conference and knowing the conference, he’s been a great asset.”

    July 22, 2014

  • UCO campus 3.jpg University of Central Oklahoma recognized as having friendly work environment

    The Chronicle of Higher Education named the University of Central Oklahoma as one of the “2014 Great Colleges to Work For.” Central is the only higher education institution in the state recognized on the list and one of only a handful of institutions in the nation given the distinction of being named to the Honor Roll for being cited most often among all the recognition categories.          
    Central joins Duke, Baylor and Notre Dame on the list of the 10 universities named to the large institution honor roll.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Sparring justices find little disagreement at the opera

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed a different view of U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday when she described about her passion for opera, one she shares with Justice Antonin Scalia.

    July 21, 2014

  • Experts: Ukraine airliner disaster has implications for U.S. security

    Use of surface-to-air missiles by extra-military personnel to shoot down civilian aircraft may be an emerging threat to the United States, a terrorism expert said.
    On Thursday, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 took off from Amsterdam and was shot down over Ukraine near the Russian border. Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken — men, women, children, infants — who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine, President Barack Obama said during a statement on the conflict in front of reporters at the White House.

    July 18, 2014

  • Rabbi, UCO professor provide Middle East perspectives

    Hours after Israel launched ground operations in the Gaza Strip, the leader of a metro synagogue and a UCO professor who was raised in the West Bank shared their thoughts about the escalating conflict.  
    During the latest cycle of violence sparked by the kidnapping and deaths of three Israeli teenagers that Israel blames on Hamas, the Jewish nation launched air strikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

    July 18, 2014

  • spts-OC Rhein Gibson British Open.jpg OC alum Gibson holes pressure putt on 18, makes cut at British Open

    It was the biggest putt of Rhein Gibson’s life — which is saying something for a guy who once shot a world-record 55 — and the Oklahoma Christian alum and Edmond resident responded the way he has so many times before.
    A four-time NAIA All-American while at Oklahoma Christian University, Gibson made the 15-footer for a birdie on No. 18 as darkness descended at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, capping a 2-over-par 74 and allowing him to make the cut in the world’s most prestigious tournament.

    July 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • spts-Senior Open Josh Cook hands on hips.jpg ‘Cook’-ing up a championship golf course

    When the practice rounds began at the U.S. Senior Open July 7, the ramblings were almost non-stop.
    From the players who live at the course to professional golfers from across the ocean and diverse parts of the globe, the consensus was that Oak Tree National was in tremendous shape and the players were keyed up to compete on it.
    “The golf course is fantastic,” Oak Tree resident Bob Tway said on the first day of competition July 10. “It’s hard, but it’s fantastic.

    July 18, 2014 2 Photos