French forces enter last urban Islamist stronghold
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Days after capturing Gao and Timbuktu, French forces entered Kidal - the last northern Malian city under rebel control - on Wednesday, encountering no resistance amid reports that Islamist fighters had already fled the city.
On Wednesday French troops in Mali entered the remote northern city of Kidal the last stronghold of Islamist rebels after a lighting offensive that saw the French-Malian contingent regain control of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu in less than 48 hours.
“French forces are present at Kidal’s airport, it’s confirmed,” said Serge Daniel, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in the capital of Bamako. “It’s not even an airport; it’s a dirt landing strip with no runway or lights. But despite that, a French plane has landed, surprising everyone.”
A spokesman for the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), a breakaway faction of the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) militant group that has said it is ready to cooperate with French-led forces, also told the AFP news agency that the French troops had landed in Kidal.
On Tuesday, members of IMA and the MNLA Tuareg rebel group said they had taken control of Kidal from hard-line jihadists. Kidal lies 1,500 kilometres northeast of Bamako and until recently was controlled by Ansar Dine.
Along with Gao and Timbuktu, the city was under control of Islamists for ten months. While they held regional power, the rebels enforced strict Sharia law and destroyed ancient mausoleums they considered heretical.
“Combat helicopters were flying overhead to secure the area, but no gunfire was exchanged,” FRANCE 24’s Daniel added. “Islamists had already left the city before French forces arrived.”
French troops, backed by Malian soldiers and a multinational West African force, have met little or no resistance as they advance over a vast desert territory the size of France.
With French troops poised to claim control of Kidal, world leaders began considering the challenges of a future strategy in the still restive northern region.
Many questions about political stability in southern Mali also remained unanswered. The country has been in limbo since a March 2012 coup allowed the Islamist takeover of the north.
Concern over African troops
At a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, African leaders and international officials pledged more than $340 million euros for military operations in Mali and in humanitarian aid.
Paris has repeated on several occasions that it would step back from combat missions in Mali as soon as it could, ceding control to West African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA).
The bulk of fighting so far has been borne by some 2,900 French soldiers, and concern has grown over a timely deployment of AFISMA troops, as well as their readiness to face seasoned fighters used to north Mali’s harsh desert terrain.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, a close French ally, told the Addis Ababa conference that there was an “urgent need to speed up the deployment”.
“The main point now should be quick disbursement of the funds that have been pledged,” he said, adding that he was “confident that over the year we'll have the amount we need” to make up for the shortfall in funding.
So far, just 2,000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger.
London to send trainers
Britain has said it was ready to help France in Mali, by sending up to 240 military trainers to the region, including 40 directly to Mali, but repeated it would not deploy combat troops.
Around 90 British soldiers have already been deployed in the region to man a Sentinel surveillance plane and two C-17 transport planes.
Speaking to parliament on Tuesday, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the country had a clear interest in the stability of Mali and ensuring that its territory does not become an ungoverned space.
“We are very clear about the risks of mission creep and we have defined very carefully the support we are willing and able to provide,” he stressed.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)