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The French say they have 1,400 troops in Mali battling to keep al-Qaida affiliated militants from taking over the country. Most of the French action has involved airstrikes. Mali is the new front line in the war on terror, writes Alan Boswell, who is in that country for McClatchy Newspapers, and joins us now. And, Alan Boswell, can you tell us where you've been and what you've seen?
ALAN BOSWELL: Sure. Right now, I'm close to the front line in Niono, which is about 40 miles south from a town called Diabaly. And that town was taken on Monday by a part of the Islamist coalition of rebels. And that capture of Diabaly really kind of shook the French and their Malian counterparts here and basically created a new front line here on the western side of the Niger River, whereas they expected most of the fighting to be on the eastern side.
SIEGEL: You've been interviewing people who have fled the fighting, I gather. What do they say? What happened?
BOSWELL: Well, what they say basically happened, as the rebels swooped in, and they caught the Malian army by surprise. They basically outfight them. They snuck through the bush and attacked them from behind. And another group kind of walked on foot across swamp and hit them from the side while they were actually expecting them to come down the road instead. The battle lasted a fair amount of time, a few hours, but then the Malian troops fled.
And then what happened is the other Malian units stationed in the area all withdrew also. And they basically left a giant no-man's land between Niono, the front line, and the Diabaly, which is where the rebels hit. And in that giant no-man's land, the rebels have been slowly expanding day by day and increasing their control over the villages.
SIEGEL: Talking about a giant no-man's-land, by my arithmetic, Mali is twice the size of Texas. In such a country, the presence of 1,400 French troops doesn't sound likely to be overwhelming. What do we know about what they've actually done in Mali?
BOSWELL: Well, so far the French have done a lot of airstrikes, and there's some Special Forces activity, which is going on mostly invisibly. But beyond that, there hasn't been a lot. I think they hoped when they came in that they'd be able to hit with some airstrikes, and the Malian army would be able to move forward on its own and capture some ground or at least stand its own.
And what's happened is the airstrikes were fairly successful at first. But without ground troops that are able to stay on the ground in the form of the Malian army, it hasn't really mattered a lot. And what you see happening now is that the Islamist rebels have been pretty quick to adjust and are doing things like using human shields and sleeping in people's homes and putting their anti-aircraft next to houses and things like that to almost neutralize the French airstrikes.
SIEGEL: Tell us a bit about this region. You know, we hear Sub-Saharan, and there's an impression that this is a desert war going on in some case. What's the area like?
BOSWELL: Well, I think the French hope that soon it will become a desert war because the northern part of the country is very deep, very duney(ph) Saharan land. But actually this area right now where they're fighting in is basically a crisscrossing land of canals and dikes and bridges. It's a bunch of rice fields. You have planted eucalyptus.
It would be an area which would probably be a pretty difficult place to engage in counter-insurgency operations. There seem to be a completely, almost innumerous amount of ways to get from point A to point B but often don't even involve going down the main road.
SIEGEL: Well, Alan Boswell, thank you very much for talking with us today.
BOSWELL: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's Alan Boswell, Africa correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. He spoke to us from Mali near the conflict zone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.