France is currently bombing the West African state of Mali. They are claiming that the Islamist groups in the north are an international threat., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Mali sets sight on Gao and Timbuktu
Wednesday, 23 January 2013 00:00
Mali’s army chief yesterday said his French-backed forces could reclaim the northern towns of Gao and fabled Timbuktu from Islamists in a month, as the United States began air-lifting French troops to Mali.
French planes bombed a major base of the Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) near Timbuktu, a defence ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Defence ministry spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard had earlier confirmed there were bombings “on the outskirts” of the town.
International moves to aid the operations revved up with the US military airlifting French troops and equipment from France into Mali.
“We expect the mission to last for the next several days,” an Africom spokesman, Chuck Prichard, told AFP in Germany. “As of yet we’ve had two flights that have landed and we anticipate more in the coming days.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron was to chair a meeting of the National Security Council to consider what additional surveillance and transport assistance London could provide, as the European Union announced 20 million euros of extra humanitarian aid.
Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and the United Arab Emirates are also providing transport planes or helicopters required to help move the African and French troops around Mali’s vast expanses.
France began its military operation on January 11 and has said it could deploy upwards of 2,500 troops which would eventually hand over control to a UN-sanctioned African force.
General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said the French-backed army was forging ahead for “the total liberation of northern Mali,” in an interview with French radio station RFI, a day after it rolled into two central towns held by Islamists.
“If the support remains consistent, it won’t take more than a month to free Gao and Timbuktu,” he said, referring to two of three main cities along with Kidal, in the vast, semi-arid north which has been occupied for 10 months.
The Al Qaeda-linked Islamists have subjected these towns to strict sharia, whipping smokers and drinkers, banning music, forcing women to wear veils and long robes, amputating the limbs of thieves and stoning adulterers to death.
A fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu was for centuries a key centre of Islamic learning and has become a by-word for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.
Today it is a battle-field, over-run by Islamist militants who have been razing its world-heritage religious sites in a destructive rampage that the UN cultural agency has deplored as “tragic”.
Dembele said troops from Niger and Chad were expected to come through Niger, which borders Mali on the east, and head to Gao, a key Islamist stronghold which has been pounded by French air-strikes.
A major boost to the regional force is a pledge by Mali’s neighbour Chad to deploy 2,000 soldiers there, which would bring the number of African soldiers to around 6,000.
The Chadian troops are battle-hardened, having quelled rebellions at home and in nearby countries such as the Central African Republic.
Egypt on Monday broke ranks with the international community saying the French-led intervention would fuel regional conflict but the head of Mali’s chief Muslim group came out in strong support of the drive.
Mahmoud Dicko said that was “not an aggression against Islam,” adding: “It was France that came to the rescue of a people in distress who had been abandoned by the Muslim countries.”
France swept to Mali’s aid 10 months after it lost over half its territory to Islamists, amid rising fears that the vast northern half of the country could become a new Afghanistan-like haven for Al-Qaeda.
The crisis erupted when the nomadic Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalised by the government, launched a rebellion a year ago and inflicted such humiliation on the Malian army that it triggered a military coup in Bamako in March.
The Tuaregs allied with Islamist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and seized control of huge swathes of territory including the main northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu but they soon fell apart.
Their success in seizing a vast stretch of desert territory raised fears they could use northern Mali as a base to launch attacks on the region, Europe and beyond. — AFP.