French and Malian troops restored government control over the Saharan trading down of Timbuktu on Sunday, pushing Islamist rebels in the desert north of the country out of one of their largest strongholds. Separately, the United States announced that they would expand logistical support for France’s intervention in its former West African colony.
As in Gao, a city situated on the Niger River in the east of Mali which French forces conquered on Saturday, militants were still expected to be hiding in Timbuktu as of Sunday, possibly blending in with the civilian population. But French-Malian ground operations, supported by French airstrikes against rebel positions, seemed no match for their lightly armed brigades.
Of the three largest towns in the north of Mali, only Kidal remained in the hands of the rebels. Among them are members of Al Qaeda’s North African wing as well as local Islamists and Tuareg secessionists. The latter were overtaken by more radical elements when fighters that were displaced by Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya’s civil war in 2011 and Algerian counterterrorism operations in recent years joined their ranks.
The Islamists’ destruction of ancient shrines in Timbuktu that are sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims provoked international outrage last year. They also imposed severe Islamic law in the city which prescribed amputations for thieves and the stoning of adulterers.
France launched airstrikes against the insurgents when they appeared to advance on the capital Bamako two weeks ago. It followed up with ground deployments now numbering over two thousand soldiers. According to the nation’s defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, France will accept nothing short of the “total reconquest” of Mali.
As the militants appear to be pulling back north, abandoning towns in favor of the desert wastes and mountain ranges there, French and Malian army troops may struggle to put a stop to the uprising altogether in weeks and months to come, however.
Other European countries and the United States have vocally supported France’s intervention and provided airlift and intelligence support but stopped short of sending in combat troops of their own. Paris urged more active involvement from the United States, in particular to help refuel its fighter planes, but the administration in Washington was “dragging its feet,” according to one French official quoted in the Financial Times this week.
The United States promised to expand their support for the French-Malian counterinsurgency on Saturday night. The Defense Department in Washington said it offered aerial refueling, which should enhance France’s ability to bomb rebel targets, as well as transport aircraft to ferry soldiers from other West African countries into Mali.
Mali’s neighbors were still struggling to put together a regional peacekeeping force mandated by the United Nations. African Union leaders who met in the capital of Ethiopia on Saturday asked for help to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to deploy up to six thousand soldiers to the conflict.