French troops deployed in last Mali rebel strongholds

DOUENTZA, Mali/PARIS Wed Jan 30, 2013 6:21pm EST

1 of 27. Malian soldiers heading to Gao in a pickup truck arrive in the recently liberated town of Douentza January 30, 2013. French troops took control on Wednesday of the airport of Mali's northeast town of Kidal, the last urban stronghold held by Islamist rebels, as they moved to wrap up the first phase of a military operation to wrest northern Mali from rebel hands.

Credit: Reuters/Joe Penney (MALI - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY CONFLICT)

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DOUENTZA, Mali/PARIS (Reuters) - French troops seized the airport in Mali's northern town of Kidal, the last urban stronghold held by Islamist insurgents, as they moved to wrap up the first phase of a military operation to wrest northern Mali from rebel hands.

France has deployed some 4,500 troops in a three-week ground and air offensive to break the Islamist rebels' 10-month grip on major northern towns. The mission is aimed at heading off the risk of Mali being used as a springboard for jihadist attacks in the wider region or Europe.

The French military plans to gradually hand over to a larger African force, tasked with rooting out insurgents in their mountain redoubts near Algeria's border.

Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French forces using planes and helicopters defied a sandstorm late on Tuesday to capture the airport but had been prevented by the bad weather from entering the town itself.

"The terrorist forces are pulling back to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains which are difficult to access," Le Drian told a news conference. "There is support from Chadian and Nigerian troops coming from the south."

The deployment of French troops to remote Kidal puts them in direct contact with pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels, whose rebellion last year was hijacked by the Islamist radicals. Le Drian said France had established good relations with local Tuareg chieftains before sending in troops.

MNLA leaders say they are ready to fight al Qaeda but many Malians, including the powerful military top brass in the capital Bamako, blame them for the division of the country. They view Paris' liaisons with the Tuaregs with suspicion.

French and Malian troops retook the major Saharan trading towns of Gao and Timbuktu at the weekend.

There were fears that many thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts held in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, might have been lost during the rebel occupation, but experts said the bulk of the texts were safe.

The United States and European governments strongly support the Mali intervention and are providing logistical and surveillance backing but do not intend to send combat troops.

The MNLA rebels, who want greater autonomy for the desert north, said they had moved fighters into Kidal after Islamists left the town earlier this week.

"For the moment, there is a coordination with the French troops," said Moussa Ag Assarid, the MNLA spokesman in Paris.

A spokesman for the Malian army said its soldiers were securing Gao and Timbuktu and were not heading to Kidal.

The MNLA took up arms against the Bamako government a year ago, seeking to carve out a new independent desert state.

After initially fighting alongside the Islamists, by June they had been forced out by their better armed and financed former allies, who include al Qaeda North Africa's wing, AQIM, a splinter wing called MUJWA and Ansar Dine, a Malian group.

RISK OF ATTACKS, KIDNAPPINGS

As the French wind up the first phase of their offensive, doubts remain about just how quickly the U.N.-backed African intervention force can be fully deployed in Mali to hunt down the retreating al Qaeda-allied insurgents. Known as AFISMA, the force is now expected to exceed 8,000 troops.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France's military operation, codenamed Serval (Wildcat), was planned as a lightning mission lasting a few weeks.

"Liberating Gao and Timbuktu very quickly was part of the plan. Now it's up to the African countries to take over," he told the Le Parisien daily. "We decided to put in the means and the necessary number of soldiers to strike hard. But the French contingent will not stay like this. We will leave very quickly."

One French soldier has been killed in the mission, and Fabius warned that things could now get more difficult, as the offensive seeks to flush out insurgents with experience of fighting in the desert from their wilderness hideouts.

"We have to be careful. We are entering a complicated phase where the risks of attacks or kidnappings are extremely high. French interests are threatened throughout the entire Sahel."

An attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria earlier this month by Islamist fighters opposing the French intervention in Mali led to the deaths of dozens of foreign hostages and raised fears of similar reprisal strikes across North and West Africa.

NEED FOR RECONCILIATION

The French operation has destroyed the Islamists' training camps and logistics bases but analysts say a long term solution for Mali hinges on finding a political settlement between the northern communities and the southern capital Bamako.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore said on Tuesday his government would aim to hold national elections on July 31. Paris is pushing strongly for Traore's government to hold talks with the MNLA, which has dropped its claims for independence.

"The Malian authorities must begin without delay talks with the legitimate representatives of the northern population and non-terrorist armed groups that recognize Mali's integrity," French Foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.

After months of being kept on the political sidelines, the MNLA said they were in contact with West African mediators who are trying to forge a national settlement to reunite Mali.

"We reiterate that we are ready to talk with Bamako and to find a political solution. We want self-determination, but all that will be up to negotiations which will determine at what level both parties can go," Ag Assarid said.

There have been cases in Gao and Timbuktu and other recaptured towns of reprisal attacks and looting of shops and residences belonging to Malian Tuaregs and Arabs suspected of sympathizing with the MNLA and the Islamist rebels.

(Additional reporting John Irish and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, David Lewis and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; Writing by David Lewis and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Rosalind Russell)

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Comments (4)
DeanMJackson wrote:
Does this article concerning recent Western interventions in Africa confuse you? No need to be confused, the so-called “Islamic terrorists” suddenly emerging in Africa are actually controlled by the West. This gives the West the pretext to intervene. Why Western intervention at this time? Well, in the case of the most recent intervention, Mali, oil and uranium have been located in large quantities. As you know, China has been all over Africa these past ten years or so exploring for precious oil to run her factories at home which allows for the foreign exchange that allows for the massive military buildup China is currently undertaking. Well, naturally the West knows what China (and her ally, the still existing USSR; the “collapse” of the USSR was a disinformation operations falling under the “Long-Range Policy”, which all Communist nations signed onto in 1960 as their “new” and more subtle strategy to defeat the West with) has in mind in the future for the West, therefore the presence of Western troops throughout Africa, causing destruction and mayhem in Africa.

Of course, Communist strategists in Moscow and Beijing aren’t stupid. They knew what Western powers would do once China was seen in Africa (which is why beginning in early 2011 oil pipelines from Russia to China began to come on line!). In other words, Communist strategists WANT as many Western troops out of their respective nations, where such troops will be easy to destroy piecemeal when the appropriate time comes in the near future.

When will that time come? Watch for the upcoming fraudulent collapse of the Chinese Communist government. That will be the sign that events are coming to a head between the West and the Communist Bloc:

“Since at least the early 1970s, the Communist party of China has been poised to create a spectacular but controlled “democratization” at any appropriate time. The party had by then spent two decades consolidating its power, building a network of informants and agents that permeate every aspect of Chinese life, both in the cities and in the countryside. Government control is now so complete that it will not be seriously disturbed by free speech and democratic elections; power can now be exerted through the all-pervasive but largely invisible infrastructure of control. A transition to an apparently new system, using dialectical tactics, is now starting to occur.” — Playing the China Card (The New American, Jan. 1, 1991).

For more on the “Long-Range Policy”, read KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn’s book, “New Lies for Old” (available at Internet Archive), the only Soviet era defector to still be under protective custody in the West.

Jan 29, 2013 9:11pm EST  --  Report as abuse
ALAN_PW7 wrote:
It would not be bad for France or the U.S. to establish a base in Mali to be maintained by the U.S. or France. the area would provide great training and great location for surveillance. Maybe a great deal could be worked out for free location and discounted utilities. A mid Africa base would become a magnet for terrorists and amagnet for free people and businesses. Terrorists hate the western countries. Native people love protection and afeeling of security might and power from the west. A combined base would work for continual training. Maybe when cnsidering training, it could be for other countries to send soldeiers for training

Jan 30, 2013 12:33am EST  --  Report as abuse
kenradke11 wrote:
Get them all! Al-Queda is a group of thugs with no respect for humanity…they must be extinguished. The Islamist agenda is to take over all the nations an we will not sit idly and allow this to happen…that would be like giving the devil reigns over all the nations….never going to happen!

Jan 30, 2013 4:08pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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