Al-Qaida carves out own country in Mali
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Deep inside caves, in remote desert bases, in the escarpments and cliff faces of northern Mali, Islamic extremist fighters have been burrowing into the earth, erecting a formidable set of defenses to protect what has essentially becomeal-Qaida's new country.
They have used the bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts. In just one case, inside a cave large enough to drive trucks into, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, according to experts.
Now that intervention is here. On Friday, France deployed 550 troops and launched air strikes against the Islamists in northern Mali, starting battle in what is currently the biggest territory in the world held by al-Qaida and its allies. But the fighting has been harder than expected, and the extremists boast it will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan.
"Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan," said former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by al-Qaida's local chapter, whose fighters now control the main cities in the north. "They do own northern Mali."