BAMAKO, Mali — French military forces launched a fresh offensive Monday against jihadists in the northern Malian region of Gao who have staged a series of attacks since being ousted from power earlier this year, a French colonel said.
By nightfall, no direct fighting had been reported between French forces and the radical Islamic fighters from MUJAO, or Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. The French troops were proceeding cautiously because one of the French hostages being held by the al-Qaida-linked militants is believed to be in the area.
France has been talking about reducing its presence in its former colony in the coming months, but also has said it aims to keep about 1,000 soldiers there. In describing the latest offensive, French Col. Emmanuel Dosseur said his forces don't want to give the impression that they're going to "abandon our Malian friends."
"It's an operation in a zone where we want to deliver a severe blow," Dosseur said.
The military offensive is taking place in the Iminasse valley, about 150 kilometers northeast of the city of Gao. Malian soldiers who know the terrain are accompanying the French forces, according to Capt. Daouda Diarra, spokesman for the Malian army in Gao.
"The goal is to drive out those who remain in our territory and to destroy them," he said.
The militants, who are inspired by a radical interpretation of Islam, ruled Gao and northern Mali for nearly 10 months before the French-led military operation forced them into the surrounding desert. Since being ousted from power in late January. However, the extremists have launched a series of attacks, including suicide bombings.
The militants from MUJAO are believed to be holding Gilbert Rodrigues, a French citizen who was abducted in November in southwestern Mali.