France strikes Mali Islamists ahead of Hollande visit
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French warplanes struck Islamist targets near the last militant outpost in northern Mali on Thursday as the UN accelerated preparations for a peacekeeping force. France's President François Hollande is due to visit the country on Saturday.
France said Thursday its warplanes had struck Islamist command posts near Kidal, the last militant stronghold in northern Mali, while the UN accelerated plans to create a peacekeeping force to take over the French-led operation.
Ground troops gathered at the gates of Kidal, as France announced that its fighter jets had blasted command centres, training camps and depots run by Islamist extremists in the mountains north of the town.
The Elysée presidential palace said in a statement that French President François Hollande will visit the country on Saturday. Hollande will be accompanied on the trip by Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canin.
Many of the Islamist rebels are believed to have slipped into the desert hills around Kidal since France launched air strikes on January 11. The surprise assault was intended to block an advance towards the capital, Bamako, by al Qaeda-linked extremists who have occupied the north since April, 2012.
The latest air strikes were carried out over the past few days in the Aguelhok region near the border with Algeria, a French military spokesman told journalists.
To back up the ground troops already in place, a column of 1,400 Chadian soldiers was heading by road towards Kidal from the Niger border, he added.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that France’s air attacks had hit the rebels hard.
But, in a sign the insurgents remain a threat, at least two Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in central territory recaptured last week from the rebels, a security source said.
Paris has urged dialogue between “non-armed terrorist groups” and Mali’s interim government for a long-term solution to the woes of the country, which straddles the Sahara Desert and the region to the south known as the Sahel.
Tuareg desert nomads in the north have long felt marginalised by Bamako, and last January rebels launched the latest in a string of insurgencies, kick-starting Mali’s rapid implosion.
The Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which had allied with Islamist groups, rapidly overran the vast desert north.
They were soon thrust aside by the extremists, who imposed a brutal form of Islamic law on areas under their control, where offenders were punished by public whippings, amputations and executions.
Interim president Dioncounda Traore said Thursday he was willing to talk to the secular Tuaregs from the MNLA, but would not meet any of the Islamist groups.
UN in, France out?
France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, is keen to hand over its military operation to nearly 8,000 African troops slowly being deployed.
UN officials said planning was at an advanced stage to gather those forces together under the umbrella of a formal UN peacekeeping operation.
“The UN was reluctant early on in this crisis to even commit to a future peacekeeping force, because they thought it would take years to dislodge the Islamists,” noted FRANCE 24 correspondent Nathan King in New York. “But here we are talking about an acceleration, because the initial fighting went very well.”
According to King, “the big question now is what would happen to the French forces” when the UN peacekeeping operation takes over. “They may just go home because their job is done, or maybe they’ll form a support mechanism to the new UN peacekeeping force,” King said.
France now has 3,500 troops on the ground and with support from the Mali Army, has retaken several rebel strongholds, including the large regional town of Gao and the fabled desert trading post of Timbuktu, with no resistance.
With the Islamists on the run, rights groups have voiced fears of widespread abuses and reprisals against Tuaregs and Arabs accused of supporting them, after reports of summary executions by Malian troops.
The EU also joined the US and France in raising alarm over the threat of reprisal attacks against minorities.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)