Analysis: Mali insurgency endangers French pull-out plan

Many in northern Mali who lived under rebel rule last year are worried about French plans to leave just 1,000 troops in the country by December.

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France wants to cut its forces in Mali sharply by the year-end and is urging its ex-colony to hold elections in July, but an Islamist insurgency is threatening that timetable, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Many people in northern Mali who lived under the rebels' brutal form of Islamic law last year are apprehensive about French plans to leave just 1,000 of the current 4,000 troops in the country by December, with U.N. peacekeepers filling the gap.

"The Islamists are waiting for the French to leave to open the gates to hell. Let's hope the U.N. will take over quickly because the Malian army alone cannot face the terrorism threat," said Alhassane Maîga, a teacher in the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.

Last weekend Islamist militants launched their second attack on Timbuktu in a fortnight, shortly after French President Francois Hollande insisted the elections must take place as scheduled and unveiled the plan to slash troop numbers.

Launched in January, the French-led offensive quickly succeeded in pushing a mix of Islamists out of their northern strongholds and remote mountain bases, hitting the local leadership of the al Qaeda-linked groups.

But new clashes have followed a handful of suicide attacks and raids on towns won back from the rebels, underscoring the task of securing the country as France prepares to hand over to the Malian army and a 7,000-strong regional African force.

The nightmare scenario is that of a repeat of the Afghan war, where Taliban insurgents have prevented a full pull-out of NATO-led troops after a 13-year conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

Presidential and legislative elections due in July are vital steps to stabilizing the gold and cotton producer after a military coup a year ago left a power vacuum which the rebels exploited to make gains.