* Murder of French journalists highlights northerninsecurity
* Al Qaeda-linked groups replace leaders
* Mali's president seeks support of ex-rebels in vote
By David Lewis and Laurent Prieur
DAKAR/NOUAKCHOTT, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Nine months after theywere scattered across the Sahara by waves of French air strikes,Islamists in Mali are making a comeback - naming new leaders,attacking U.N. peacekeepers and killing two French journalists.
Their return is making it harder for the west Africancountry's new president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his foreignbackers to stabilise the northern desert despite the incentiveof more than $3 billion in international aid for the area.
Mali imploded last year when Tuareg separatists tried totake control of the north. Their rebellion was soon hijacked bybetter-armed and funded Islamic militants linked to al Qaedabefore the French intervention in January.
Increasingly blurred lines between the Islamist militants,separatist rebels and gangs of smugglers has complicated thetask of calming the area and Keita's party has allied itselfwith leaders of some armed groups in a bid to wield influence.
Experts are starting to worry that France will get boggeddown in an open ended war if U.N. peacekeepers cannot pick upthe baton.
"Mali is entering a guerrilla war, waged by sleeper cellsand fighters who returned from southern Algeria, Libya andNiger," said a French former diplomat and counter-terrorismexpert who blogs under the name Abou Djaffar.
Last month, two Chadian U.N. troops were killed in a suicideattack in the remote town of Tessalit. Gao, the largest city innorthern Mali, has been hit by a series of rocket attacks, whileFrench special forces have taken action against Islamists northof Timbuktu for the first time in months.
But it was the killing of two French journalists, seized inbroad daylight in the northern town of Kidal on Nov. 2, whichsent shockwaves through France. Al Qaeda-linked fighters saidthe killings were a response to France's Mali operation althoughanalysts say it may have been a botched kidnapping.
France dispatched reinforcements to Kidal after thejournalists' deaths but insists it will not further delay itsplan to reduce its 3,200 troops in Mali to 1,000 by February,already two months later than originally scheduled.
"We are conscious that it will take a long time to eradicatethe terrorism threat in the Sahel (desert)," a French diplomatsaid.
"Of course, there is Serval (the French operation) andMINUSMA (the U.N. mission), but long-term efforts will be neededand a deep regional coordination to completely kill theterrorism threat in Mali."
Donors are once again disbursing aid after Keita's electionin August restored a legitimate government. Military officersseized power in March 2012 in anger at President Amadou ToumaniToure's handling of the Tuareg rebellion.
Keita won power with a pledge to remove the web of corruptelites that rotted the state under Toure. But with parliamentaryelections on Nov. 24, Keita's party has allied itself with someleaders of armed groups who the previous government sought forwar crimes.
"They are reverting to the same old practices," said WolframLacher, an associate at the German Institute for Internationaland Security Affairs. "The whole complex of drug trafficking,organised crime and warlordism is going to be back in place. Ididn't expect it to happen quite so quickly and so openly."
FOREIGN FORCES STRETCHED
The journalists' killing highlighted the gaps in foreignmilitary cover in a country twice the size of France. Frenchtroops in Kidal had to call in helicopters from Tessalit, 250 km(155 miles) away to try and track them down. France has just 16in all of Mali.
Five months into its mandate, the U.N. mission is only athalf strength. Regional military power Nigeria pulled its troopsout and Mauritania, Mali's western neighbour with longexperience fighting Islamists, has refused to join.
The bills are mounting at a time when Paris is underpressure to cut defence spending. According to a Senate reporton the defence budget, the Mali operation will cost 650 millioneuros in 2013. Add the support for African allies and the finalamount will be much higher.
Angering many in Bamako, France refused to carry outmilitary operations against Tuareg separatist MNLA rebels inKidal, saying the government should open a political dialogue.
A fusion of the MNLA with one Arab and one Tuareg groupfurther blurs the line between rebels with a political agendaand Islamists. They are due to hold talks with the governmentabout a solution to the problems in the north.
Under a June peace deal to allow presidential elections togo ahead, the three groups agreed to confine their troops tobarracks. Many have not and in Kidal, where there is little armypresence, gunmen slip in and out of the town, avoidingcheckpoints along sandy tracks that fan out into the desert.
"Kidal is worse because the armed groups are no longer incontrol but the government is not in control either," said anofficial at the U.N. mission.
Underscoring these shifting alliances, the main suspect inthe killing of the French journalists is linked to both the MNLAand AQIM.
The hit-and-run attacks by the Islamists mark a return to'business as usual', said Yvan Guichaoua, Sahel expert at theUniversity of East Anglia.
France's offensive killed hundreds of Islamists. Al Qaeda'sNorth African wing, AQIM, was hardest hit, losing AbdelhamidAbou Zeid, its senior leader in the zone, and several other keyfigures. But the group has been busy restructuring.
Abou Said el-Djazairi, a fellow Algerian, replaced Abou Zeidas head of the Tarek Ibn Zyad brigade in northern Mali.El-Djazairi is a 40 year-old veteran of AQIM's Sahel operations,including the 2010 kidnapping of French mine workers fromnorthern Niger, regional security sources said.
Mauritanian Abdarrahmane Al Liby, aka Talha, has replacedAbdallah Al Chinguetti, another of its killed commanders. AlLiby is close to Yahya Abou el-Hammam, AQIM's top Saharacommander, and is believed to have been part of a desert raidthat killed 12 Mauritanian troops in 2008, the sources said.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM chief who formed his owngroup, has joined forces with MUJWA, another AQIM splinter, tocarry out attacks, including suicide bombings in Niger in May.
In the face of French firepower, many Islamists had soughtsafehaven outside Mali, especially in southern Libya, securityexperts said. However, many others just kept their heads down.
"They have always been there but they were just observing,"said an international security source who monitors northernMali. "We are seeing a resurgence in activity."
The violence suggests Islamists won local recruits duringtheir occupation but are now also using suicide bombings, a newtactic from AQIM's North African operations, Guichaoua said.
Timbuktu residents say they fear venturing outside town. TheFrench diplomat said Paris was under no illusion the threat hadbeen eradicated: "They are waiting for the storm to pass andthen they will try to rebuild their capacities progressively."
OLD HABITS DIE HARD
Analysts say that Malian and French political leaders arerepeating mistakes partly to blame for Mali's implosion.
Security experts say they are convinced France once againpaid a multi-million dollar ransom to secure the release lastmonth of four French citizens kidnapped three years ago. Frenchmedia, citing French intelligence sources, have also said aransom was paid.
Paris, which denied any payment, had pledged an end to suchpayments that netted Islamists tens of millions before the war.
"This is another example of French incoherence: shiftingbetween tough posturing and secret compromises to save lives,"said Abou Djaffar.
Bamako has also attracted criticism for its compromises.
In the name of reconciliation, it lifted the arrest warrantsfor four key rebel figures. Two of them, Ahmada Ag Bibi andMohamed Ag Intallah, were named to the electoral list of Keita'sparty to bolster its support with northern elites.
Lacher said the men were not extremists but opportunists whojoined armed groups to strengthen their position. Nonetheless,the deal would discredit Keita's pledge to end injustice, hesaid: "It's not a question of extremism but impunity."
In Gao and Timbuktu, where residents are proud to haveresisted occupation by Tuareg rebels and then the Islamists, thealliances Bamako is forging are deeply unpopular.
"These are people who took up arms against Mali and killedcivilians," said Amadou Sarr, leader of a local militia duringthe occupation. "They're going back to their old habits and weare not ready to accept this." (Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Timbuktu and JohnIrish and Patrick Vignal in Paris; editing by Anna Willard)
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