French enter last Islamist stronghold in Mali

French troops took up positions at Kidal, the last Islamist bastion in Mali's north, as Paris called for peace talks between the government and "legitimate representatives" from the north.

  • Published: 30/01/2013 at 11:44 AM
  • Newspaper section: news

French troops patrol the Malian city of Gao on January 30, 2013. French troops on Wednesday entered Kidal, the last Islamist bastion in Mali's north after a whirlwind Paris-led offensive, as France urged peace talks to douse ethnic tensions targeting Arabs and Tuaregs.

French troops arrived at the Kidal airport just days after the capture of Gao and Timbuktu and after lightning push north, which Paris hopes now to wind down with a handover to African forces.

Now, said France, the talking had to start.

"This political process now has to advance concretely," French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said Wednesday.

He called for talks with the legitimate representatives of the northern peoples and "non-terrorist armed groups" that recognise the integrity of Mali.

"Only a north-south dialogue will prepare the ground for the Malian state to return to the north of the country," he said.

The United States also called for Malians to refrain from revenge attacks on Tuaregs or other ethnic minorities.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Wednesday the troops at Kidal had been unable to leave the airport there because of a sandstorm.

But a spokesman for the newly formed Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), which on Monday announced it had taken control of the town, said its leader was speaking to the French there.

The MIA says it has split from the home-grown Islamist group Ansar Dine ("Defenders of the Faith"), that it rejects "extremism and terrorism" and wants to find a peaceful solution to Mali's crisis.

On Wednesday, the group warned against the deployment of Malian and West African troops in the Kidal region.

It launched "an urgent appeal to the international community and France to see that (they) do not enter... the region of Kidal before a political solution is found".

"It's the only condition" the group was imposing "to fully contribute to the fight against terrorism and the definite resolution to the crisis," the statement added.

Kidal lies 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako and until recently was controlled by the Islamists of Ansar Dine.

Ansar Dine and two other Islamist groups took advantage of the chaos following a military coup in Bamako last March to seize the north, imposing a brutal form of Islamic law.

Offenders suffered whippings, amputations and in some cases were executed while Islamists also destroyed sacred shrines in the ancient city of Timbuktu they considered idolatrous.

France swept to Mali's aid on January 11 after an Islamist advance south towards Bamako sparked fears the whole country could become a haven for terrorists. The French now have 3,500 troops on the ground.

Several reports say the main Islamist chiefs, Iyad Ag Ghaly of Ansar Dine and the Algerian Abou Zeid of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have retreated to the mountains in the Kidal region bordering Algeria and Niger.

-- France urges talks with northern groups --

For France, an essential part of rebuilding Mali's political stability is a political settlement between the provisional government in Bamako and the Tuaregs in the north who want a degree of self-rule.

Mali's parliament on Tuesday adopted a political roadmap which included a commitment to holding July 31 elections and negotiations with representatives of the north, a development welcomed by France.

The UN cultural organisation UNESCO said it would send a mission to Timbuktu as soon as possible to assess the damage done to ancient cultural sites defaced or destroyed by the Islamists.

But an expert said Wednesday that the vast majority of priceless ancient manuscripts -- feared destroyed when the Islamists torched the building housing them as they fled Timbuktu -- were safe.

Shamil Jeppie, director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project director at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, said more than 90 percent had been smuggled away even before the insurgents took the city last year.

At a donors' conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa Tuesday, African leaders and international officials pledged more than $455 million (340 million euros) for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.

Lack of cash and equipment has hampered deployment of nearly 6,000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) which is expected to take over from the French army.

Niger's Defence Minister Karidjo Mahamadou meanwhile told AFP Wednesday the country was ready to host a base for US drones monitoring movements by the Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the region.

A US official on Monday confirmed press reports that the Pentagon was planning to station drones in the region.

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