French hostages complicate Mali mission
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As French warplanes bombed Islamist bases in northern Mali on Monday, efforts to take back the country’s north have been complicated by the fact that militants still hold seven French nationals hostage.
French fighter jets bombed Islamist militant bases in northern Mali on Monday in a drive to disrupt supply routes and flush out combatants in hiding. Yet operations have been complicated by the fact that it is believed the retreating Islamists are holding seven French hostages who were originally kidnapped in Mali and Niger in 2011 and 2012.
About 1,800 Chadian soldiers have entered Mali’s northern city of Kidal to "secure" what was the last stronghold of Islamist rebels, the French defence ministry said on Tuesday.
Chad had promised to provide 2,000 soldiers to the African-led AFISMA intervention force in Mali, which is starting to take shape following a lightning offensive by French forces against the rebels.
The offensive came as France and the US called for African-led forces to swiftly take over military operations in Mali as French-led efforts to retake the north from Islamist control continued for a third week. Troops have made significant gains against militants since the campaign began on January 11, forcing them to retreat from major cities in the north like Timbuktu and Gao. They have also carried out major air strikes targeting logistics and training centres in Mali’s northeastern mountains, which lie near the border with Algeria.
"It is about destroying their rear bases, their depots," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio on Monday.
"They have taken refuge in the north and the northeast, but they can only stay there long-term if they have ways to replenish their supplies. So the army, in a very efficient manner, is stopping them from doing so."
Meanwhile, the families of four hostages taken in Niger voiced their fears late Monday, saying that while the proximity of French forces "near where they are imprisoned" gave them hope, "the legitimate desire for their liberation should not lead to their sacrifice."
Meanwhile, Shehu Abdulkadir, the Nigerian commander of the UN-backed African force known as AFISMA, said his troops were devising a strategy to free the hostages, but declined to provide any specific details.
Since France first intervened in Mali in January, the government has been eager to pass the baton to the nearly 8,000 African troops pledged to AFISMA, whose deployment has been slow.
"We want to be rapidly relieved by the AFISMA African forces in the cities that we hold," the French foreign minister said.
US Vice President Joe Biden, after meeting with French President Francois Hollande on Monday in Paris, backed that demand and said the United Nations should make the African mission a formal UN peacekeeping operation – a plan UN officials say they are pushing forward.
The UN, African Union and other international players were due to meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss introducing long-term peace and stability in Mali once the conflict is over.
Al-Qaeda-linked groups seized control of the bow-tie shaped nation's vast northern triangle in the wake of a coup in Bamako in March last year.
The Islamists initially allied with Tuareg rebels – fighting a decades-old battle for independence of land where they have lived as desert nomads for centuries – but quickly cast them aside and imposed a brutal version of Islamic sharia law.
Northern residents have celebrated throwing off the shackles of harsh Islamist rule, but are now facing food shortages as Arab and Tuareg traders flee out of fear of reprisal.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)