French gain control of airport in Mali town


French troops took control of the airport of Mali’s northeastern town of Kidal yesterday, bringing them to within striking distance of the last urban stronghold held since last year by Islamist rebels.

French defence minister Jean Yves Le Drian said his ground forces were stuck at Kidal airport because of a sandstorm, but reports from the town said jihadis who had occupied it since last summer had already fled to the desert in anticipation of a French-led assault.

With Paris signalling it wanted to withdraw its 3,500 troops from Mali when all towns had been retaken, the capture of Kidal would bring the first phase of the foreign intervention to an end.

The French began their operation three weeks ago, when the Malian government appealed for help in halting a surprise rebel advance that threatened the capital, Bamako. President François Hollande has said the task of pursuing militants to their desert redoubts will fall to an African force, which has begun to cross into Mali from neighbouring countries but remains hampered by logistical delays.

Kidal, 1,500km northeast of Bamako, was until recently under the control of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which has strong ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Islamist militants took advantage of a military coup in March last year to impose Sharia law in a number of cities in the north.

Peaceful solution

However, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently split from Ansar Dine, said yesterday it was now in charge in Kidal. It said it rejected “extremism and terrorism” and wanted a peaceful solution.

Another rebel group, the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), is also influential in the area.

An ethnically driven group fighting mostly for the rights of Mali’s minority Toureg community, the MNLA said it was prepared to work with the French “to eradicate terrorist groups” as long as the Malian army did not return to Kidal.

Amid this manoeuvering, France urged Mali’s interim government to begin immediate talks with the country’s northern population, including armed groups that recognised the “territorial integrity” of the state.

“Only a north-south dialogue will enable the return of Malian state in the north of the country,” French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.

As the French wind up the first phase of their offensive, however, doubts remain about just how quickly the UN-backed African intervention force, known as Afisma and now expected to have more than 8,000 troops, can be fully deployed in Mali to pursue the retreating insurgents.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said the French military operation was planned to be a lightning mission that would last just a few weeks to avoid getting bogged down.

“Liberating Gao and Timbuktu very quickly was part of the plan. Now it’s up to the African countries to take over,” he told Le Parisien.

“We decided to put in the means and the necessary number of soldiers to strike hard. But the French contingent will not stay like this. We will leave very quickly.”

Desert fighting

Mr Fabius warned that things could now get more difficult, as the offensive seeks to flush out insurgents with experience of fighting in the desert.

“We have to be careful. We are entering a complicated phase where the risks of attacks or kidnappings are extremely high. French interests are threatened throughout the entire Sahel.”

France has also called for international observers to be deployed to ensure human rights abuses are not committed – an apparent response to reports in recent days of reprisal attacks against alleged jihadist collaborators in the towns of Gao and Timbuktu.