A Malian soldier stands guard with his machine gun on the
road between Konna and Sevare. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
French and Malian troops were restoring government
control over the fabled Saharan trading town of Timbuktu on
Sunday, the latest gain in a fast-moving French-led offensive
against al Qaeda-allied fighters occupying northern Mali.
The Islamist militant rebels have pulled back northwards to
avoid relentless French air strikes that have destroyed their
bases, vehicles and weapons, allowing French and Malian
troops to advance rapidly with air support and armoured
A Malian military source said the French and Malian forces
reached "the gates of Timbuktu" late on Saturday without
meeting resistance from the Islamist insurgents who had held
the town since last year.
The French and Malians controlled the airport and were
working on securing the town, a UNESCO World Heritage site
and labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick
homes, ready to flush out any Islamist fighters still hiding.
"Timbuktu is delicate, you can't just go in like that," the
source, who asked not to be named, said.
On Saturday, the French-Malian offensive recaptured Gao,
which along with Timbuktu was one of three major northern
towns occupied last year by Tuareg and Islamist rebels who
included fighters from al Qaeda's North Africa wing AQIM.
The Malian military source, and at least one resident of Gao
who travelled south out of the city, said there were still
rebel "pockets of resistance" there, and that government
troops were carrying out house-to-house searches.
The third town, Kidal, in Mali's rugged and remote northeast,
remains in rebel hands.
The United States and Europe are backing the U.N.-mandated
Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of
radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's
inhospitable Sahara desert as a launch pad for international
One Timbuktu resident now outside the town said a friend
inside had sent him SMS messages saying he had seen
government troops on the streets, but gave no more details.
Fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, which
groups AQIM with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM
splinter MUJWA, had destroyed ancient shrines sacred to
moderate Sufi Moslems in Timbuktu, provoking international
They had also imposed severe sharia, Islamic law, including
amputations for thieves and stoning of adulterers.
As the French and Malian troops push into northern Mali,
African troops from a continental intervention force expected
to number 7,700 are being flown into the country, despite
delays due to logistical problems and the lack of airlift
FEARS OF GUERRILLA WAR
France sent warplanes and 2,500 troops to Mali after its
government appealed to Paris for help when Islamist rebels
early in January launched an offensive south towards the
capital Bamako. They seized several towns, since retaken by
In the face of the two-week-old French-Malian counter
offensive, the rebels seemed to be pulling back north into
the trackless desert wastes and mountain fastnesses of the
Military experts fear they could carry on a gruelling
hit-and-run guerrilla war against the government from there.
A leader of Mali's main Tuareg insurgent movement, MNLA,
whose initial separatist rebellion in the north was hijacked
by al Qaeda and its local Malian allies, offered help from
his group's desert fighters to the French-led offensive.
Speaking from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed
Assaleh said the MNLA was preparing to attack the withdrawing
al Qaeda-allied Islamist forces and its leaders, whom he said
were hiding in the Tidmane and Tigharghar mountains in the
Kidal region that borders with Algeria.
"The MNLA is on maximum alert," Assaleh said.
At Konna, a town 500 km (312 miles) southeast of Gao
recaptured from the rebels earlier this month, some people
said they were still afraid.
"No-one believes the rebels will give up without resisting.
They may be regrouping for an attack, there is fear of a
guerrilla war," said Salou Toure, a middle-aged resident of
Timbuktu who had fled that town three months ago.
Malian Captain Faran Keita, an army officer in the central
Mopti region, said: "We're at war against terrorists, even
here someone with an explosive vest could attack."
AFRICA CHIDED FOR SLOW RESPONSE
Malian government control was restored in Gao on Saturday,
after French special forces backed by warplanes and
helicopters seized the town's airport and a key bridge.
Around a dozen "terrorists" were killed in the assault, while
French forces suffered no losses or injuries, France's
defence ministry said.
Officials said the mayor of Gao, Sadou Diallo, who had taken
refuge in Bamako during the Islamist occupation, had been
reinstalled at the head of the local administration.
The robust military action by France over the past two weeks
in its former Sahel colony has left African leaders
embarrassed about the continent's inability to quickly field
its own force.
At an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, outgoing AU
chairman Thomas Boni Yayi, president of Benin, criticised
Africa's slow response to the Islamist insurgency in Mali.
"How could it be that when faced with a danger that threatens
its very foundations, Africa, although it had the means to
defend itself, continued to wait," Yayi said.
Around 1,900 African troops, including Chadian, have been
deployed to Mali so far as part of the planned U.N.-backed
African intervention force, known as AFISMA. Burkina Faso,
Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Niger and Chad are providing
troops. Burundi and other nations have pledged to contribute.
OFFERS OF FUNDS, HELP
The United States and Europe, while providing airlift and
intelligence support to the anti-militant offensive in Mali,
are not planning to send in any combat troops. Washington
agreed to fly tankers to refuel French warplanes.
The AU is expected to seek hundreds of millions of dollars in
logistical support and funding for the African Mali force at
a conference of donors to be held in Addis Ababa on Jan. 29.
European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs told
Reuters in Addis Ababa he believed enough funds would be
offered to sustain the African troop intervention for a year.
Piebalgs added the latest estimated cost of the operation he
had seen was 430 million euros ($579.42 million). The EU had
already committed to provide 50 million euros ($67.37
million) to pay the salaries of the non-Malian African
Japan would pledge over $100 million at the donor conference
for humanitarian and social development in Mali and the wider
Sahel, a Japanese official in Addis Ababa told Reuters.
Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi also offered in
Addis Ababa to work with the African Union to help resolve
the crisis in Mali. Salehi said Iran was ready to offer
assistance to Mali's tens of thousands of refugees and