Paris, 25 Rabiul Awwal 1434/6 February 2013 (MINA) – French warplanes bombed Islamist militant bases and depots deep into northern Mali to disrupt their supply routes, French officials said on Monday, as secular Tuareg rebels in northern Mali said they had captured two Islamist commanders near the Algerian border.
The Tuaregs favor independence and had joined forces with better-armed Islamist fighters last year to take over much of Mali’s north. But the Tuaregs were soon edged out by their Islamist counterparts, who controlled the region’s major towns and imposed a harsh version of Islamic law, cutting off hands, stoning a couple to death and beating people in the streets.
Now, with the rapid advance of the French military campaign to recapture northern Mali, the Tuaregs have vowed to help French forces fight the Islamist militants, according to www.nytimes.com reports monitored by Mi’raj News Agency (MINA), Wednesday.
The main Tuareg rebel group, the M.N.L.A., announced that it had captured Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, an Islamist leader who helped impose Shariah law in the city of Timbuktu. It also said it had seized Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, described as a leader of the Islamist group Mujao, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which is a splinter from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and responsible for kidnapping at least one French hostage.
The two men were captured on Saturday near the Algerian border by a patrol and taken to the northern city of Kidal on Sunday for questioning, said Mossa Ag Attaher, a spokesman for the M.N.L.A., speaking from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. He said the French would be welcome to question the men.
Stronger autonomy for Tuaregs
The M.N.L.A. — the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the Tuareg name for northern Mali — now controls the northern city of Kidal, while French forces remain at the city’s airport. The French are reluctant to move into Kidal with Malian soldiers, whom the Tuaregs regard as interlopers and who have been accused of human-rights abuses against Tuaregs.
But French special forces are operating in the area, French officials said on Monday. The French are also pressing the government in the capital, Bamako, to open political negotiations with the M.N.L.A. to provide stronger autonomy to the north — but within a united Mali.
Paris and Bamako have called on the M.N.L.A. to give up its aspiration for independence, but Mr. Attaher said that Tuaregs needed firm assurances that their rights and freedoms would be better protected and that they would have more political power.
If those guarantees are provided, he said, “the M.N.L.A. will accept.” But in return for giving up independence, he asked, “What is Mali proposing?”
A French military spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard, said Paris would not confirm or discuss the capture of the men. But the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said on Monday that at least 30 French jets had bombed “bases and fuel depots” in northern Mali around Tessalit, 125 miles north of Kidal, on Sunday to prevent the Islamists from regrouping in the region.
“If you look at the map, they have taken refuge in the north and northeast,” Fabius told France Inter radio. “But they can stay there only if they have ways to get supplies. So in a very efficient manner, the military is stopping that.”
Western-rebadged African UN Peacekeeping Force
In Paris on Monday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. met President François Hollande of France and praised French troops in Mali. The two men agreed, Biden said, that African troops should take over as quickly as possible and then be rebadged as a United Nations peacekeeping force.
“We applaud your decisiveness and, I might add, the capability of France’s military forces,” Biden told Hollande. “Your decisive action was not only in the interest of France but of the United States and everyone. We agreed on the need to, quickly as possible, establish an African-led mission to Mali and as quickly as prudent transition that mission to the U.N.”
Fabius said that “in the cities we are holding, we want to be quickly replaced by African forces.” He said the French might pull out of Timbuktu relatively quickly. “We are working on it because our vocation is not to stay in the long term.”
The French are anxious not to be seen as neo-colonialists and do not want their troops, stretched out over the vastness of Mali, to be vulnerable to ambushes, kidnappings and shootings by militants who may have blended into the civilian population.
France also said it would progressively restore its development aid to Mali, frozen since a military coup last March, as soon as there was a “road map” for new elections, according to Pascal Canfin, a deputy minister for development in the Foreign Ministry.
Paris has pressed for elections in Mali as early as July to replace the transitional government, but that will depend greatly on talks with the Tuaregs.(T/P09/E1)
Mi’raj News Agency (MINA)