The battle against Islamists in the Ifoghas Mountains is over and Chadian troops are now being redeployed to the northern Malian town of Kidal, where Tuareg hopes for independence remain strong.
To reach the Chadian forces stationed in northern Mali, there is only one choice.
To move its troops, Chad uses a Soviet-era Antonov cargo plane, piloted by a Serbian crew that works around the clock. “When the commander asks us to fly, we fly,” says Sergueï, the plane’s navigator.
The town of Kidal is still not totally secure. It remains in the hands of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or MNLA, which is now a fragile ally of France.
The MNLA took control of Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, on March 30 last year as part of the Tuareg drive for the independence of northern Mali, a region known to them as Azawad.
And as the convoy makes it way through the town, the children shout, “Long live Azawad” -- a sign that the desire for independence remains strong.
“As far as Chadian forces are concerned, we have been warmly welcomed here,” Oumar Bikimo, the commander of Chadian forces in Mali, tells FRANCE 24. “Warmly welcomed, but not as warmly as our troops elsewhere in Mali ... some in Kidal view them more as occupiers than liberators.”
Fighting alongside their Islamist allies, the Tuaregs took Gao and the historic desert town of Timbuktu in the weeks following their takeover of Kidal. But the Islamists soon seized full control of the territories, undermining Tuareg hopes of independence.
French forces, now backed by African troops, launched operations to oust the Islamists on January 11. Kidal serves as a base for the French and Chadian troops that were fighting the remaining militants in the Ifoghas mountain range.
The MNLA has said it would oppose any move into Kidal by the Malian army, which the UN has accused of committing rights abuses against Mali’s Tuareg and Arab communities in its bid to rout the Islamists.
France, which has 4,000 troops in Mali, is eager to withdraw and transfer responsibility to a pan-African force, which would then give way to a UN peacekeeping mission.
UN chief Ban Ki-Moon has said that up to 11,200 peacekeepers might be needed for the mission, which would be backed by a military force to battle any remaining Islamist fighters.
Date created : 2013-04-05