TIMBUKTU, Mali – African soldiers in the fabled city of Timbuktu worry their equipment, training and circumstances are not adequate to defend against another takeover by Islamic extremists who know the terrain as a double bombing by radical elements has also threatened neighboring Niger.
Burkina Faso soldiers officially took over at the end of April after hundreds of French forces left the northern Malian town several months after their military operation largely ousted the radical Islamic fighters from the area.
French forces parachuted into Timbuktu in late January to liberate the city from the radical Islamic fighters who had occupied it for 10 months. Al-Qaida's wing in Africa imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, requiring women to wear the veil and carrying out public whippings. The French are now scaling down their deployment from 4,000 to 1,000 soldiers in its former colony by the end of the year, leaving other forces in charge.
But a report by obtained by The Associated Press this week indicates that some 500 soldiers from the neighboring West African country are facing problems with defense.
"Insufficient night vision capabilities and radio communications with the Malian army for coordination," are among the issues, the report turned in to the head of the African-led mission in Mali said.
Col. Gilles Bationo, who leads the Burkina Faso soldiers, also said that their second-generation night vision equipment doesn't allow them to see if there is wind, dust or no moon in this desolate area of the world. He said that the jihadists also circulate faster through the deserts in their vehicles because they know the terrain so well, making it difficult for the forces to capture them.
"Weak capacity engineering, the need for air combat assets on site, transport logistics," and shielding tactics are also missing, according to the report and Bationo.
The fight against the radicals is also hindered by an airplane runway that is blocked by trees.
"The trees around the airport prevent U.S. military from coming into the airport, and security is not guaranteed," Bationo said, adding that jihadists also can hide out in the thick trees to shoot at any planes landing or taking off.
He said that they also lack reliable electricity. Bationo submitted the report to Pierre Buyoya, the head of the African-led mission, in hopes the battalion's concerns will be addressed. Buyoya visited Timbuktu on Monday.
"The battalion is going to stay in place in Timbuktu and will transform into the MINUSMA which is the U.N. mission for maintaining peace around July," Buyoya said. "The Burkina Faso battalion will be made up of 850 soldiers."
Bationo said the situation in Timbuktu remains calm, despite frequent reports of robberies and inter-communal clashes in neighboring communities, but that amped up defenses are needed.
"The double bombing in Niger means we must prepare," he said, adding that an attack on Timbuktu is likely after suicide bombers in Niger detonated two car bombs simultaneously, one inside a military camp in the city of Agadez and another in the remote town of Arlit at a French-operated uranium mine, killing at least 35 people, according to Niger's president.
The attacks that began at dawn Thursday were claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and by Algerian terrorist Moktar Belmoktar. Both are believed to have fighters in Mali. Belmoktar, whose brigade known as "Those Who Sign in Blood" is also responsible for the devastating attack in January on the Ain Amenas gas plant, where 37 foreigners including American, French, Irish and British citizens were killed.
U.N. peacekeepers are supposed to take over in July from a 6,000-member African-led mission now in Mali, although the deployment date is subject to change depending on security conditions. The U.N. force will be tasked with helping to restore peace. However, it will not be authorized to launch offensive military operations or chase terrorists in the desert, which French forces will continue to do.
Mali fell into turmoil after a March 2012 coup created a security vacuum that allowed secular Tuareg rebels to take over the country's north as a new homeland. Months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic jihadists who carried out public executions, amputations and whippings.
When the Islamic rebels started moving into government-controlled areas in the south, France launched a military offensive on Jan. 11 to oust them. The fighters, many linked to al-Qaida, fled the major towns in the north, but many went into hiding in the desert and continue to carry out attacks including suicide bombings.
Tuareg separatists have since reclaimed the northern city of Kidal. The government is in talks with the separatists as elections are slated for this year.