They didn’t find any, but they were taking no chances: Suicide bombers had killed several of the troops’ comrades in recent weeks. The soldiers allowed the truck to pass, still viewing the passengers with suspicion.
Four months after French forces intervened in northern Mali to prevent jihadists from gaining more territory, the conflict is increasingly evoking similarities to the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The radical Islamists and al-Qaeda militants have been pushed out of Timbuktu and other major towns, but they are now dispatching suicide bombers and using improvised explosive devices to attack their enemies. Many have melted into the population, raising fears about an underground spy network and ambushes.
On Friday, at least five suicide bombers struck in two northern towns, seriously wounding at least two Malian soldiers, according to a military spokesman, Capt. Modibo Niaman Traore.
“The jihadists spent 10 months here,” said Col. Keba Sangare, commander of the Malian troops in Timbuktu, who are fighting alongside the French and other African forces. “Some got married. Some have children. They have links here. Even if they are physically not here, spiritually they are.
“Even when there are no attacks, it doesn’t mean we are in peace. We are definitely at war.”
In Timbuktu, once the primary base of the jihadists, the tensions are evident. Although there is collective relief that the militants’ rule has ended, the mud-walled city remains a shadow of its illustrious past. The streets, once bustling with traders and visitors, including Western tourists, are deserted. Most shops are shuttered. Prices of staple items such as gas and grains have soared.
Tens of thousands of residents who fled during the jihadists’ reign have yet to return, remaining in refugee camps outside Mali or with relatives and friends in the capital, Bamako, and other southern towns where the conflict never reached.
Nearly all of Timbuktu’s minority light-skinned Tuareg and Arabic-speaking Moor population has fled. Many members collaborated with the Islamists or supported a separatist Tuareg rebellion that helped trigger the Islamist takeover. Even those who supported neither movement left, fearful of reprisal attacks by Mali’s darker-skinned ethnic groups, which were persecuted the most by the Islamists.
“The city has changed,” said Nadjim al-Mubarak, 52, a tailor, as he walked down a desolate, sand-covered street. “There used to be traffic, business and people everywhere. Now, life is dead.”
France plans to withdraw about three-quarters of its 4,000 troops by the end of the year. Replacing them will be a 12,600-member U.N. peacekeeping force, scheduled to arrive ahead of elections in July. But the peacekeepers’ mandate prevents them from using force except in self-defense, posing long-term challenges to efforts by France, the United States and other countries to stop a jihadist haven from emerging in West and North Africa.