French troops stand guard
By the slow-moving Niger River at Gao, the north Malian town retaken by French troops from Islamist rebels last month, men repair fishing nets beside beached pirogues, women wash pots and children splash naked in the muddy water.
The scene looks tranquil enough but the French soldiers and their allied troops from Niger on the riverbank are alert, fingering their weapons and squinting southwest across the water to the village of Kadji, shrouded by eucalyptus trees.
Locals living along the bank have identified Kadji as a hotbed of al Qaeda-allied jihadists who last weekend surprised the French, Malian and Nigerien troops in Gao with two suicide bombings and a daring raid into the heart of the town, reports Reuters.
Since Sunday's attack, the French and their African allies have been busy hunting down rebel suspects and dismantling bomb-making factories in the sprawling mud-brick Saharan town in a counter-insurgency operation that is tying them down.
"After Sunday, securing Gao is our priority," said a French officer who, like many involved in the operation, asked not to be identified. "Once we have done this, we will move out of town to help the Malians neutralize these pockets of Islamists."
The house-to-house searches, sandbagging of fixed defensive positions and reliance on tip-offs from locals already have the hallmarks of an arduous counter-guerrilla operation.
The need to secure Gao, hundreds of kilometres behind the French forward lines where commandos are hunting for French hostages believed to be held in rebel mountain hideouts, is robbing momentum from France's five-week-old campaign.
France's military operation which started in Bamako, the southern capital, and drove 1,700 km (1,050 miles) northwards to Tessalit near the Algerian border, initially forced the bulk of the Islamist forces from the main northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu, earning global plaudits for French President Francois Hollande.
The United States and Europe praised a decisive move against Mali-based jihadists threatening international attacks.
But following the recent Gao attacks, French spokesmen are increasingly having to fend off suggestions that the 4,000 French soldiers in Mali could risk getting mired in a long and debilitating war, in a tough and hostile battleground.
"I don't think we can talk for the moment about getting bogged down," French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told reporters on Thursday in Paris.
"Bamako-Tessalit, that's like the distance from Paris to Rome," Burkhard said, stressing the speed of the French campaign, which has cost the life of only one French serviceman so far - a helicopter pilot killed early in the operation.
But others see clear "mission-creep" risks in Mali.
"It's very much going to be an insurgency on the ground like we've seen in Iraq and like we've seen in Afghanistan," Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird said on Tuesday, explaining why Canada was not likely to send troops to support the French.
Conscious of the task facing the French to stabilize north Mali, Gao citizens who spent months living alongside Islamist occupiers under the yoke of severe sharia law are coming forward with information on the jihadist gunmen and their arms caches.
"We know the fighters. We are keeping an eye on them. We are ready to denounce them," said Seydou Maiga, speaking beside his riverside hut, in full view of Kadji.