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France and African Allies Sweep Northward after Seizing Timbuktu

January 29th 2013


Islamist militants have lost more ground in northern Mali, with French and Malian troops taking the city of Timbuktu and secular Tuareg rebels announcing they have seized the city of Kidal. A spokesman for Tuareg rebel group MNLA told VOA that the group's fighters now control Kidal and the nearby town of Tessalit. There has been no independent confirmation of the claim.

​​Meanwhile, French media reports say French and Malian troops entered central Timbuktu on January 28, a day after they seized the local airport and the key roads that lead to the historic city. The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO lists Timbuktu as a World Heritage site for its ancient mosques and shrines, some of which date back to the 15th century. But Islamist group Ansar Dine considers the sites sacrilegious, and the militants destroyed some mausoleums while they controlled the city.

Timbuktu's mayor said on January 28 that Islamists fleeing the town set fire to a library housing thousands of historic manuscripts, many of which were sacred to followers of the Sufi strain of Islam.  Officials say they do not yet know the extent of the damage.

Earlier, VOA correspondent Anne Look, who is in Malian town of Sevare, reported most Malians are cheered by the Islamists' retreat. “What’s interesting when I talk to people both in Bamako and in the north, there’s a real sense, especially among average folk but among the military people that I talked to, that they’ve got the enemy on the run, that these kind of landmark victories -- taking back Gao over the weekend, and getting so close to Timbuktu -- are really boosting morale," she said.

French and Malian forces retook Gao on January 27 from Islamists who fled without resistance. Afterward, residents of Gao played music in the streets, danced, smoked and reverted to Western-style clothing, celebrating their first full day in months without the strict Taliban-style Islamic law the militants had imposed.

France began a military offensive in Mali earlier this month after Islamist rebels who had seized control of much of the country's northern territory last year began pushing toward Bamako. The Islamist rebels had joined with ethnic Tuaregs to take control of northern Mali following a government coup in March that left a power vacuum in the country.  The Islamist groups later took full control of the northern region and imposed strict Islamic law.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on January 28 that a key component to resolving the crisis in Mali is new elections to overturn the results of the coup.  However, she softened the U.S. stance that Mali needs to hold elections by April. "The date had been in April.  I think obviously we're not going to prejudge whether security is going to be restored in a manner that is going to enable that," she said. "What we want is a national unity conversation about what is appropriate and security standards so that elections can go forward as soon as possible."
In another development, the International Monetary Fund said on January 28 it would give Mali an emergency loan of $18.4 million. On January 29, Japan announced that it was releasing another $120 million in aid to stabilize the region which straddles Mali, Niger and Algeriai.
Nearly 8,000 African troops from Chad and the West African bloc ECOWAS are expected to take over from the French, but their deployment has been slow, with just 2,700 currently stationed in Mali and Niger.The African force requires a budget of $460 million, declared a final statement from the African Union's last day of a summit conference held in Ethiopia. The AU is promising $50 million for the mission.
As for the United Kingdom, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said his government seeks to contribute more than the two transport planes and a surveillance aircraft it has already provided. British media reported on January 29 that up to 200 troops might be involved as part of an EU mission to train Malian soldiers and troops in neighbouring countries.

- from VOA and agencies.

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