France bombs Islamist targets in Mali after Hollande visit
France said it carried out major air strikes on Sunday near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali’s desert north in a lightning French-led offensive, after a whirlwind visit by President Francois Hollande.
An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centres run by Islamist extremists overnight in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, where French troops took the airport on Wednesday and have been working to secure the town itself.
Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the northeastern town for the first time Saturday as the rest of the country feted Hollande on his tour, a victory lap that came three weeks into a campaign, so far successful, to oust the Islamists who occupied northern Mali for 10 months.
Ecstatic crowds greeted Hollande, who called the trip the “most important day of my political life”, in the capital Bamako and the fabled city of Timbuktu, with cheers of “Vive la France! Long live Hollande!”, offering him a camel draped in a French flag.
The French-led forces have met little resistance, with officials saying many Islamists have likely fled to the mountainous terrain around Kidal.
The ethnic Tuareg rebel group MNLA, whose insurgency for an independent state in northern Mali unleashed the current crisis, said it had clashed Friday with Islamist fighters around Tessalit. The MNLA was initially allied with al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups before being ousted from their territory.
The area targeted in Sunday’s air strikes is near the border with Algeria, which was reluctantly drawn into the Malian conflict when it agreed to let French warplanes use its airspace.
In retaliation, Islamist militants attacked an Algerian gas field on January 16, unleashing a hostage crisis that left 37 foreigners dead.
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said on Sunday that while there was cause for “optimism” on the situation in Mali, “it is still marked by problems facing Malians and those who are helping them re-establish stability and security.”
Israel and the United States had new praise for France’s intervention.
“I really salute the fact that the French leadership has not just analysed what should be done but go out there and just do it. That’s a very good example for the world,” said outgoing Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
US Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter also praised the operation and told a French newspaper that Washington, which began supporting France with mid-air refuelling two weeks into the intervention, did not hesitate to get involved.
“There was no hesitation. We were aware of the strategic stakes,” he told Le Journal du Dimanche, which quoted him in French.
But underscoring the threat of a long-term cross-border insurgency, the Taliban in Afghanistan condemned France and called on Muslims to unite against it and its allies.
“The French government has attacked mujahedeen in Mali, and America has also agreed to support France. I ask the whole Muslim world to unite because it is an ideological war,” said spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.
In Kidal, residents said they had seen Chadian soldiers shopping at the main market in the sandy outpost, and witnesses said Chad now had some 150 troops in the town.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t want war here,” said a former town hall employee.
The situation on the ground in Kidal is delicate, with seven French hostages believed to be in the area and the rebels splintered in factions, with the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) extending an olive branch by renouncing “extremism and terrorism”.
Hollande’s surprise decision to intervene has made him a hero in Mali.
But with fears the conflict could now turn into a drawn-out insurgency, France is walking a difficult line, eager to hand over the operation to a promised contingent of some 8,000 African troops without abandoning its former colony to chaos.
The jubilation of Hollande’s one-day visit was heightened on Saturday evening when the Malian national team defeated hosts South Africa to advance to the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s football championship, their best performance since 1972.
But the euphoria has been tainted by reports from rights groups of a grim backlash against light-skinned citizens seen as supporters of the extremists.
With fears of reprisal attacks high, many Arabs and Tuaregs have fled.
In all, the crisis has caused some 377,000 people to flee their homes, including 150,000 who have sought refuge across Mali’s borders, according to the United Nations.