Washington backs France on Mali plans

Tue, Feb 5, 2013, 00:00

The United States has supported France’s call for a UN peacekeeping mission to be formed in Mali.

On a visit to Paris yesterday, US vice-president Joe Biden praised the “decisiveness” and “incredible competence” of France’s operation in Mali and said Washington and Paris were at one on the next steps to be taken to restore security.

“We agreed on the need to act as quickly as reasonably possible to establish an Africa-led international mission in Mali and as quickly as is prudent transition that mission to the United Nations,” Mr Biden said after a meeting with President François Hollande.

Paris believes that deploying UN peacekeepers could be a way of dealing with problems over funding the African mission and fears of ethnic reprisals by Malian troops against Tuaregs and Arabs associated with the Islamists who are currently in retreat in the north of the country.

As French air strikes continued against targets near the northern town of Kidal yesterday, Tuareg rebels in the region said they had captured two senior Islamist insurgents fleeing the French offensive.

Sharia law

The MNLA, a Tuareg outfit that is seeking autonomy for part of northern Mali, said one of their patrols seized Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, an Islamist leader who imposed harsh Sharia law in the desert town of Timbuktu, and Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of a French hostage by the al-Qaeda splinter group MUJWA.

The MNLA, which seized control of northern Mali last year only to be pushed aside by better-armed Islamist groups, regained control of its northern stronghold of Kidal last week when Islamist fighters fled French air strikes into hideouts in the nearby desert and rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

The Tuareg group says it is willing to help the French-led mission by hunting down Islamists, and yesterday’s news will be interpreted as an attempt to convince the French of its bona fides as a partner.

The MNLA has also offered to hold peace talks with the government to heal wounds between Mali’s desert north and the south. But many in the capital, Bamako, including army leaders who blame the MNLA for executing some of their troops at the desert town of Aguelhoc last year, are strongly opposed to negotiations.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said warplanes were seeking to destroy Islamists’ supply lines and flush them out of remote areas in the north.

Destruction of support

“The objective is to destroy their support bases, their depots, because they have taken refuge in the north and northeast of the country and can only stay there in the long term if they have the means to sustain themselves,” Mr Fabius told French radio. “The army is working to stop that.”

Mr Fabius said French soldiers could soon pull back from Timbuktu, where he and Mr Hollande were cheered by jubilant crowds on Saturday, and other towns where Malian state control has been restored.

“A withdrawal could happen very quickly,” he said. “We’re working towards it because we have no desire to stay there for the long term.”