BAMAKO - French-led troops were closing in on Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu on Sunday after capturing a string of other towns in their offensive against rebel groups in the north of the country.
The advance comes after French and Malian troops on Saturday seized the town of Gao to the east of Timbuktu, the biggest victory so far in their 17-day operation against the militants. And in another blow to the insurgents, who have been in control of the north of the impoverished country for 10 months, French air strikes destroyed the home of the leader of an Al-Qaeda-linked group in the town of Kidal overnight, according to a Malian security source.
News of the Malian reconnaissance team’s approach to Timbuktu came after French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said troops were advancing on the ancient desert trading post and centre of Islamic learning, where 333 revered Muslim saints are believed to be buried.
The senior Malian officer said the troops’ main concern was to ensure security, as there had been widespread looting in Gao. “We want to avoid these scenes in Timbuktu and elsewhere,” he said.
Gao is the biggest of six towns seized by French and Malian troops since they launched their offensive on January 11 to wrest the vast desert north from the fighters amid fears that the region could become a terror hotbed. Lieutenant Adama Coulibaly, speaking from Gao, said the Malian troops “were welcomed by applauding crowds and cries of ‘Long Live Mali!’, ‘Long Live France’”.
French-led forces on Saturday took the city from the Al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the rebel groups that took control of northern Mali in April last year.
A Malian security source also said the home of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) chief Iyad Ag Ghaly was destroyed in the air raids on fighters’ bases in Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (950 miles) north of the capital Bamako. The Mali crisis erupted in April in the chaotic aftermath of a coup in Bamako. An alliance of Tuareg rebels seeking an independent homeland in the north joined forces with several rebel groups, seizing Kidal first and then Gao and Timbuktu.
France launched its campaign after rebels captured a central town and pushed deeper into government territory towards Bamako from their bastions in the north, an area the size of Texas. Residents fleeing Timbuktu were jubilant in the face of the French advance. “We have the feeling that we are soon going to be liberated,” said Sidi Toure, a 67-year-old trader, speaking in the city of Mopti about 250 kilometres south of Timbuktu.
International Committee of the Red Cross chief Peter Maurer voiced concern about the situation, telling a Swiss newspaper: “Mali is one of the most profound humanitarian crises which we are dealing with today.”
The UN said Friday that 9,000 people had fled Mali since the launch of the French campaign, bringing the total number of refugees to 150,000 while about 230,000 are internally displaced.
At an African Union summit in Addis Ababa where leaders discussed increasing troop numbers for Mali, outgoing AU chairman and Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi described the AU response as slow and said France’s action was something “we should have done a long time ago to defend a member country”.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon told the summit he was “determined to do everything to help the people of Mali”, but also urged Bamako to ensure “an inclusive political process” and the “full restoration of the constitutional order”.
Defence chiefs from West African regional grouping ECOWAS agreed Saturday to boost their troop pledges for Mali to 5,700. Chad, which is not a member of the 15-nation bloc, has promised an extra 2,000 soldiers.
France has deployed 2,500 troops and says 1,900 African soldiers are currently on the ground in Mali and Niger. Belgium meanwhile said it was sending 40 troops to man helicopters involved in evacuation operations.