French Move Into Malian Rebel Stronghold, Leaving “Quickly”

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in Paris, July 13, 2012

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in Paris, July 13, 2012 (European Parliament)

France’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that his nation’s troops will leave Mali “quickly” after they moved into the last urban rebel stronghold in the north of the country.

The city of Kidal was the last town in rebel hands after French and Malian forces conquered Gao and Timbuktu last Sunday and Monday, respectively. French soldiers secured Kidal’s airport on Wednesday and appeared to have pushed the Islamist militants who established their rule there last year into the desert wastes and mountain ranges surrounding the area.

France launched airstrikes against insurgents in its former colony when they appeared to advance on the capital city Bamako more than two weeks ago. It followed up with ground deployments now numbering over three thousand soldiers who have been able to aid the Malian army in retaking several cities and towns in the central and northern parts of the country.

“Now it’s up to African countries to take over,” foreign minister Laurent Fabius told Le Parisien newspaper.

We decided to put in the means and the necessary number of soldiers to strike hard. But the French contingent will not stay like this. We will leave very quickly.

The Africans’ task will be rooting out insurgents hiding in the countryside. Neighboring countries still struggled to put together a comprehensive peacekeeping force numbering six to eight thousand soldiers, however. While their effort is sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, the contributing nations, all former French colonies, have requested international support to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals.

France’s intervention appears to have split the rebels and enabled Tuareg separatists to reclaim the initiative. The rebels, who want greater autonomy if not outright independence for the north, said that Islamists had left Kidal earlier in the week.

Members of Al Qaeda’s North African wing and other Islamist groups, including the local Ansar Dine, bolstered by fighters that were displaced by Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya’s civil war in 2011 and Algerian counterterrorism operations in recent years, sidelined the Tuareg last year to declare an Islamic state in Azawad, as the region is also known. A permanent solution to the unrest in Mali should probably include some form of autonomy for the Tuareg who were promised a state of their own as early as under French colonial rule.