AFTER about three weeks of severe fighting, the last bastion of the rebel forces in Mali, Kidal, has reportedly fallen to French forces.
The European power saidThursday that it was now expecting the deployment of the United Nations (UN)-backed Africa-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) to support the second phase of the struggle - driving the al-Qaeda-linked fighters from their desert hide-outs.
Nigeria, the country with the largest military capability in West Africa, had since deployed 1,200 troops as part of the AFISMA coalition. Several hundred soldiers from West African countries - including Niger and Chad - are already in Mali. Nigeria originally planned to send 600. The proposal of gradual mobilisation rose to 900 before being pegged at 1,200.
Rebel forces seized northern Mali late 2011 in what many thought would not only be another African disruption of civil democratic order but one that carries a major terrorist threat to the rest of the world.
France’s foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the Agence France Presse (AFP) yesterday that France intended to leave Mali “quickly”, and it was up to African countries to take over.
Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru, had told The Guardian as Nigeria prepared to deploy troops that the country had to move into Mali “to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven and training base for terrorists, who would come and join forces with extremists in Nigeria.”
Agencies’ reports variously said Thursday that the leader of Ansar Dine Iyad Ag Ghaly and Abou Zeid of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had now moved to the mountainous region north of Kidal. The historic city of Timbuktu and Gao (both now provincial capitals) had earlier fallen out of the hands of rebels.
But as late as Tuesday, Tuareg fighters from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular militant group calling for independence for northern Mali, claimed Tuesday that they were in control of Kidal.
The fall of the rebel stronghold is coming just as the European Union (EU) foreign ministers met yesterday in Brussels to re-affirm support for the French intervention in Mali. On Tuesday, international donors meeting in Ethiopia pledged $455.53 million for the AFISMA and for other projects. African leaders had maintained in this regard that the overall budget could be around $950 million.
Further reports from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) said yesterday that militant Islamist fighters had now left the town of Kidal, which is near the Algerian border, and were believed to be hiding in the surrounding mountains.
Kidal was until recently under the control of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which has strong ties with AQIM. Also, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently split from Ansar Dine, said that it was in control of Kidal.
Kidal official Haminy Maiga said the French troops had met no resistance. “The French arrived aboard four planes,” said Maiga, who heads the regional assembly.
“They took the airport and then entered the town, and there was no combat. The French are patrolling the town and two helicopters are patrolling overhead,” he said.
The MNLA had previously said it would support the French but would not allow the return of the Malian army, which it accused of “crimes against the civilian population.” But human rights groups have accused the Malian army of targeting ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilians.
Meanwhile, apparently responding to growing concerns over the no-show perception hanging over African countries’ troops deployment in Mali, the president of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo, said yesterday that the entire numbers in the various contingents would soon be on Malian soil.
The ECOWAS Commission boss maintained yesterday that stakeholders were confident that the full deployment of all military contingents pledged by various African countries to assist Mali would prove critical in countering terrorist groups in the sub-region.
“We have held talks with the Headquarters of AFISMA (the International Support Mission in Mali) and everything is gradually falling into place. I can assure you that, in the coming days, all the contingents will be on ground,” the President affirmed at a press briefing during his one-day visit to Bamako from Abidjan.
According to the ECOWAS Commission in Abuja, President Ouédraogo and his delegation, which included the Ivoirien Minister of Foreign Affairs Charles Koffi Diby and his Defence and African Integration counterpart, who is also Chairman of the ECOWAS Chiefs of Defence Staff, Gen. Soumaila Bakayako visited the French base where they were briefed by Col. Fagué, the co-ordinator of Operation Serval.
The team also visited the Sénou-Bamako air-base hosting the Nigerian contingent, where Brig.-Gen. Ash Saad re-affirmed the readiness of the troops to support Mali in containing the threat of the terrorists.
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