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Mali: Desert Tests Troops Heading To Timbuktu
We began our trek to Timbuktu a week ago, embedding with the French 1st Regiment Armoured Corps paratroopers.
Garwen and I set off with them from the Malian capital, Bamako, at the crack of dawn on January 22. We were only meant to be with them for 48 hours and our destination was S?r?in the centre of the country and near the largest Malian army base at Mopti.
But after 12 hours in the back of a cramped Blind?our convoy of about 30 military vehicles was ordered to turn around and head for Diabaly in the west, a town near the Malian border which had been recaptured by the French two days earlier.
But when the convoy reached Diabaly a day later, the unit was given fresh orders; they were to join the biggest movement of ground troops and military equipment since the French intervention in Mali on January 11.
In Diabaly, they were joined by dozens of other military vehicles and troops - a convoy which itself stretched over several kilometres.
Progress was tortuously slow and as we traversed across the desert terrain, the huge articulated trucks carrying ammunition and large generators got repeatedly wedged in sand banks. Hours were taken up hauling them out, with soldiers shovelling the sand away from the wheels over and over again. Engines broke, tyres burst and a number of vehicles had to be hoisted onto the back of flat-bed transporters when the desert defeated them.
We slept out in the open desert in small tents alongside the soldiers on the marathon journey.
At one stage, a group of armed militants were spotted a kilometre ahead of the convoy. French jets were called in to protect the convoy and a Mirage jet circled high above us for about 20 minutes. Four helicopters also arrived (two Gazelles and two Pumas) and flew low, looking for the militants who'd been seen ahead, heavily armed and in a pick-up truck.
As we trundled on, we saw the evidence of airstrikes on buildings believed to have housed militants but the jihadis appeared to have fled.
In Soumpai, the convoy was mobbed by cheering crowds and the soldiers responded by giving them their rations - a gesture which endeared them to the local population even more.
Corporal Regis, whose Blind?e were sharing, climbed out of the vehicle to hand the children biscuits and sweets from his ration box as the crowd searched and scrambled for anything offered.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the highest child mortality rates. Life is incredibly hard here, especially in the northern desert region which is sparsely populated, and there is miles and miles of barren landscape separating villages and towns.
"It's hard to watch this," said Corporal Regis, as children fought over their rations. "It makes me think of my own daughter."
Every few hours, the winding convoy stopped for toilet breaks in the desert. For me, the hunt would start for the odd shrub that would serve as cover for my dignity. When our surroundings were often 360 degrees of barren sand, this was a challenge.
But we ate well. The French rations included rabbit p?, Mexican bean salad, beef lasagne and Camembert cheese, all vacuum packed and designed to last years. Our boxes had printed on them 'use by 2015'.
Contained inside were soft metal sheets which you could bend into a scoop for burning fuel tablets to heat your food.
Each dish is designed to be perfectly nutritionally balanced to keep the soldiers who may be on the road for weeks in tip-top condition.
But the journey was long and gruelling, dusty and burning hot during the day, while the temperatures dipped dramatically at night. It wasn't only the Timbuktu residents who were pleased at the military's arrival in the town.
Communications have been cut in Timbuktu by the jihadis. The electricity is only available for a few hours in the morning and water is currently being rationed.
A curfew has now been imposed and with the departure of the bulk of the militants, there is a lack of authority in the town, which the French and Malian armies will need to install as soon as possible.