Malian soldiers heading to Gao arrive in the recently
liberated town of Douentza. REUTERS/Joe Penney
French troops have seized the airport in Mali's northern
town of Kidal, the last urban stronghold held by Islamist
insurgents, as they move 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.
Defence 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
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
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
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
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
"The Malian authorities must begin without delay talks with
the legitimate representatives of the northern population and
non-terrorist armed groups that recognise 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
"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
sympathising with the MNLA and the Islamist rebels.