Little more than two weeks after French troops began to assist the Malian army in a counter-offensive against Islamist rebels, they have entered Goa and Timbuktu leaving just one major town left under the control of jihadists.
To many this will come as a great relief. The scenes of devastation that troops are witnessing as they move through Timbuktu's historic streets bear testament to the wanton destruction that the Islamists brought to Northern Mali: thousands of beautiful ancient shrines, mosques, relics and churches have been smashed and burnt in an iconoclastic spree that reached every corner of the World Heritage Site.
The human cost is even higher: many of the city’s residents have fallen victim to fundamentalist purges and summary justice including amputations, beatings, floggings and public executions. ‘Crimes’ ranging from smoking or playing music, to pre-marital sex or wearing the wrong kind of clothing, have all been cause for brutal treatment; though as in any system without due process even many of those who toed the line were rounded up and punished.
Whilst the French have been welcomed as liberators however, the Malian troops they are clearing the way for may bring little relief to civilians in the North. Over the past week reports have remerged of significant human rights abuses by government forces including extrajudicial executions and rape, raising fears of bloody reprisals against the region’s Tuareg population.
The grievances of the Tuareg have never been properly addressed by the central government and decades of armed rebellion have left a legacy of bitterness on both sides. It was a temporary alliance between secular Tuareg rebels and militant Islamists that first drove the army out of Northern Mali last year, leaving many troops now spoiling for revenge as they push back with French support.
There is also a track record abuse within the army’s ranks and desertions are frequent boding ill for discipline particularly if, as expected, the jihadists begin a protracted guerrilla campaign rather than simply meting away. Furthermore, the continued military interference in government since overthrowing the democratically elected President and handing power to a weak transitional administration, has given officers a certain degree of impunity.
This leaves a dilemma for the French government, which will be keen to withdraw troops as quickly as possible once the bulk of the fighting is over but will be reluctant to leave a vengeful and ill-disciplined government force running amok against the Tuareg civilian population. Already the Pentagon has moved to distance itself from the support that America provided to the Malian army…for François Hollande and the French troops who facilitated the liberation of Timbuktu that will not be so easy.