France to hand control of military operation in Mali to African forces


France has said it will move quickly to hand over control of its military operation in Mali, leaving it to African forces to pursue Islamist militants who have fled to the country’s vast desert.

French and Malian troops were in Timbuktu yesterday, securing the city after they seized it from retreating rebel groups in a rapid offensive on Monday.

Residents of the town reported some looting of shops which were owned by Arabs and Tuaregs suspected of having helped Islamist fighters who had occupied much of northern Mali since last summer.

With the French-led forces having now retaken nearly all major towns in northern Mali, President François Hollande said the 2,900-strong French deployment might soon stop its northward advance and leave it to African forces to pursue the militants in the desert.

‘Winning this battle’

“We are winning this battle,” Mr Hollande said. “When I say, ‘We’ this is the Malian army, this is the Africans, supported by the French . . . Now, the Africans can take over.”

Efforts to mobilise an 8,000-strong UN-backed regional force, known as Afisma, have been beset by delays, but a donor conference in Ethiopia yesterday agreed to provide $455 million for the operation.

The US and France’s European allies have offered logistical, airlift and intelligence support to the campaign against jihadist forces in Mali, but have refused to send combat troops.

The bulk of the planned African intervention force for Mali – to be comprised mostly of West African troops – is still struggling to get into the country, hampered by shortages of kit and supplies and lack of airlift capacity to fly the force in.

About 2,000 are already on the ground. Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Niger and Chad are providing soldiers for the Afisma force.

Burundi and other states have also pledged support.

Hundreds of soldiers from Chad and Niger with desert warfare experience have crossed into Mali to join the French and Malian operations against the retreating Islamist rebels, who have pulled back to the rugged northeast mountains.