PARIS (Reuters) - Chad warned France and its African allies on Thursday against crying victory too soon in the fight against Islamist rebels in northern Mali, saying only 70 percent of the battle was won in the country’s desolate far north.
Chad’s Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat urged African nations to send troops to the frontline in the rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains where 2,400 Chadian soldiers are battling pockets of die-hard Islamists, together with French forces.
A nine-week French-led campaign expelled militants from north Mali’s main towns, leaving pockets of resistance in the desert and rock-strewn mountains by the Algerian border.
French President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday almost all Mali’s sovereignty would be restored in a few days. France aims to begin withdrawing its 4,000 troops from late April.
Asked about that plan, Faki said: “More than 70 percent of the job has been done but we shouldn’t celebrate victory too soon because we have an unusual enemy in an unusual terrain.”
“We need to be careful. Look at what happened in Timbuktu today,” he said in an interview in the Chadian embassy in Paris.
An Islamist suicide bomber killed a Malian soldier and wounded six others in a raid on Timbuktu’s airport overnight, the first attack in the desert trading city since Islamists there fled a French offensive nearly two months ago.
France said 10 militants were killed in the raid, which raised doubts over how well France and its allies controlled the territory behind the frontline. Most fighting in recent weeks has been around the town of Gao or in the Adrar des Ifoghas, with some suicide attacks in the far northern town of Kidal.
France intervened in the northern Mali conflict on January 11, saying Islamists’ seizure of the region last year gave them a launchpad to attack the West.
Paris is now pushing for the effective deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force of up to 10,000 troops to replace the 6,000-strong African mission, AFISMA. U.N. diplomats say this relies on there first being an end to offensive military operations.
Mali’s demoralized and poorly disciplined army, expelled from the region in April 2012 by a Tuareg revolt subsequently hijacked by the Islamists, has yet to return to the far north.
Chadian President Idriss Deby showed frustration with West African leaders in February, demanding they urgently speed up deployment of forces to north Mali to aid Chadian and French troops. The Chadian death toll stands at about 30 since it launched its intervention in January.
Faki reiterated his president’s concerns but said his country would maintain a contingent within the future U.N. force until Malians were able to protect themselves. He said the details of any U.N. deployment had to be finalized.
“The threat to Mali was a threat to Chad. If the threat had been in another country then we would still have intervened as it’s our own security at stake,” he said, adding that there had been no attempts by al Qaeda affiliates to strike in Chad.
Deby has said his troops have killed al Qaeda’s two top field commanders in the region, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, though France has yet to confirm the information.
“We said what we had to say. Those two are well and truly dead,” Faki said. “Our priority is to secure and stabilize the region and save the (French) hostages.”
Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing said it had beheaded one of its seven French hostages in retaliation for France’s intervention in Mali, Mauritania’s ANI news agency reported on Tuesday.
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Paul Casciato