Mali: the release of prisoners leaves a bitter taste to the French soldiers

All that for this? The recent release of 200 prisoners against four hostages, negotiated by the Malian authorities with a jihadist group fought for years by France, sometimes at the cost of blood, leaves a bitter taste in the French military ranks.

“When you spend your nights building dikes and someone kicks them, it’s no fun,” blows a senior official on condition of anonymity. A brief summary of the frustration experienced by some within the French armies, while 5,100 of theirs are deployed in the Sahelo-Saharan strip to block the jihadists.

Ultimate humiliation, the Malian Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, head of the jihadist alliance affiliated with Al-Qaeda “Support Group for Islam and Muslims” (GSIM), posted a photo on social networks with released prisoners, on the occasion of a sumptuous banquet in their honor.

The jihadist affiliation of these 200 ex-detainees, released against four hostages including the French humanitarian Sophie Pétronin, has not been proven. Many of them are mere suspects, sometimes arrested in widespread raids. But some were “heads of katiba” arrested by the soldiers of the anti-jihadist force Barkhane and handed over to the Malian authorities, plague a French soldier. According to an investigation by the daily Liberation, at least 29 of the released prisoners had been captured by French soldiers.

France, whose official line is “not to negotiate with the terrorists”, has distanced itself from the negotiations. “These negotiations were conducted by Mali and the decision to release jihadists, in particular, belongs to the Malian authorities alone,” Armed Minister Florence Parly insisted on Tuesday.

Anxious to preserve the morale of the troops and not to see the legitimacy of Barkhane undermined, to which Paris is endeavoring to associate more and more European reinforcements, the Minister and the staff took care to insist on their determination to continue the operation.

Weakened trust

“It must be very clear, for all the families who have lost their loved ones in the fight that we have been waging in Mali for years, that we do not deviate from the line, that our fight remains the same and that it is everything as legitimate as it was, ”said the French chief of staff, General François Lecointre, on Wednesday.

Assurances that do not prevent doubt from settling on the merits of the mission, which is struggling to contain the jihadist threat in the Sahel despite successes on the ground.

Especially since the idea of ​​negotiating with the jihadists seems to appeal to other actors. The African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smaïl Chergui, called for “exploring the dialogue with extremists” in the Sahel and “encouraging them to lay down their arms”, in a column published in the Swiss newspaper Time.

And the official draws a parallel with the agreement reached between the Americans and the Afghan Taliban in February: it “can inspire our member states to explore dialogue with extremists and encourage them to lay down their arms.”

In France, doubt begins to perspire. “We have lost 50 soldiers since the start of these operations and nearly 500 soldiers have been injured,” the president of the French Senate defense committee, Christian Cambon, recalled on Tuesday.

However, a certain number of detainees released in Mali “have blood on their hands (…). Can we still consider that the junta in power in Mali is a trusted partner in the fight against terrorism that our soldiers lead with courage and abnegation? “, He wondered, confiding his” deep concern about the situation of Barkhane in these conditions “.

For the moment, officially, this questioning does not reach the top of the state. But President Emmanuel Macron announced in July that he intended to make new arbitrations “at the end of the year” on the French engagement in the Sahel.

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