French fighting in extreme terrain in Mali

They call it "planet Mars." French soldiers have been marching in the Tegharghar mountains of northern Mali for weeks.

The valley of Terz has been bombarded by French Mirage planes over the last month; the hunt is now conducted on foot.

But the sound of jets is constantly echoing over our head and through the valley.

Nearly 2,000 French soldiers are deployed all over the rocky desert, with as many troops from Chad in support.

They are searching for jihadist fighters and their hide-outs in the mountains - part of the Adrar des Ifoghas near the Algerian border.

The terrain is treacherous and unforgiving. The foreign legionnaires who we were embedded with looked exhausted; their noses and lips were sunburnt, they were caked in dust and hadn't showered in days.

Each soldier carries more than 50kg (8 stone) and under their boots, the rocks are as jagged and as sharp as glass.

It is relentless; it is unremitting. There is no respite here, and at 60C, the dark stones become as hot as burning coals.

The French have been advancing through the western entrance of the mountain range while the Chadians entered the eastern point.

Both the French and the Chadians engaged in the fiercest fighting last month, inflicting heavy casualties on the insurgents, including one of the most violent al-Qaeda field commanders, Abou Zeid.

The Chadians then formed a buffer force leaving time for the French to search valley after valley, hill after hill.

"We first used heavy artillery, jets and helicopters to downsize the enemy from a reasonable distance," Col Benoit Desmeulles, Commanding Officer at the Foreign Legion, said.

"We then started to clear all the caves in the valleys, which was down to man-to-man fighting.

"We clear caves with grenades before entering them."

Caches are being found every day, full of weapons, ammunition and food supplies.

After climbing yet another rocky crest, the unit we were following found explosive belts ready for use, mortars and 100kg of nitrate for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

De-mining engineers immediately destroyed it all in a controlled explosion.

In the valley of Ametetai, where the French believe al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had built its Malian "sanctuary", soldiers uncovered construction trucks that jihadi fighters used to dig trenches and underground caches.

The al Qaeda forces are avoiding contact, but their are also losing their logistic operations.  Many of the caches are found around rare water wells in the area.   They are also finding passports and medical supplies. The passports may be valuable in helping others trace the al Qaeda operatives.


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