Wagadou Forest - Malian forces are building up their defences in the Wagadou forest, braced for a counter-attack by al-Qaeda fighters three weeks after wresting the base back from the jihadi group.
Three units are now hunkering down in the dense forest, backed by two surveillance aircraft - a gift from France - carrying out flyovers every day and two helicopter gunships.
"The abandoned trenches you see here were under construction for the past five months" by members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), Colonel Gaston Damango, head of operations in the forest zone, told AFP.
About 2m deep, the trenches were designed to keep the base supplied with ammunition and allow for jihadists to move around unseen.
"There were some real military strategists amongst them," said Damango.
Situated 500km north-east of the capital Bamako, on the border with Mauritania, the Wagadou Forest was to be used by Aqim as a base from which to carry out attacks in the region and store heavy weapons.
The forest, 80km long and 40km wide, is made up mainly of shrubs and bushes but also includes taller trees with dense foliage that Aqim could use as an observation post.
- The Mauritanian army, which said the base was "a real threat" against its country, carried out a raid on June 24 in which 15 Aqim followers were killed as well as two soldiers.
- The remains of eight burned out vehicles and thousands of spent cartridges scattered on the ground bear witness to the growing intensity of clashes between the Mauritanian army, supported by Mali, and the north African al-Qaeda branch.
- "On the day of the attack, the head of operations from the Mauritanian army asked us to bombard an Aqim position in the south-east of the forest," said Damango."The Malian army fired a total of 15 shells on the enemy position."
To Damongo, it is of little importance whether Aqim members left of their own volition, or were flushed out: "The result is they are no longer there today, that they suffered a defeat."
The two armies carried out weeks of operations to secure the area, both before and after the raid in a joint operation called "Benkan", a word from the Bambara language meaning unity.
The Mauritanian soldiers returned home 15 days ago, but are only a few kilometres away.
- Military engineering Commander Baidi Diakite said one of the aryl’s priorities is demining the area of "very dangerous" Czech-manufactured anti-tank mines laid by Aqim.
The arrival of the Malian army in the Wagadou Forest has also benefited the local population who have received medical care and food supplies.
"In several days we have carried out hundreds of consultations and four operations," said doctor, Colonel Sidiki Beret at the hospital of nearby town Niono.
In the nearby village of Diabili, two trucks pulled up and soldiers in Bermuda shorts distributed some of 100 tons of food - a gift from the Malian government which will also benefit Mauritanian villages on the other side of the border.
Keeping al-Qaeda out has become the two countries' biggest security headache, as the organisation carries out armed attacks and kidnappings in the Sahel desert region where it is also involved in arms and drugs trafficking.
Mali and Mauritania are among the countries hardest-hit by Aqim activities, along with Niger and Algeria, where the organisation has its roots. The nations work closely together in efforts to crack down on the organisation.
Aqim is holding four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in September 2010 as well as an Italian woman taken hostage in Algeria in February.
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