Gao, Mali: French fighter jets pounded Islamist supply bases in northern Mali to flush the radicals out of hiding, as Paris pushed on Monday for African troops to quickly take over the offensive.
Dozens of French fighter jets carried out massive air strikes on rebel training and logistics centres in the area around their last stronghold of Kidal over the weekend in the mountainous north-east of the landlocked county.
“It is about destroying their rear bases, their depots,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio.
“They have taken refuge in the north and the northeast but they can only stay there long-term if they have ways to replenish their supplies. So the army, in a very efficient manner, is stopping them from doing so.”
The extremist fighters who have controlled northern Mali for 10 months have fled into the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the Kidal region near the Algerian border, after being driven from their strongholds by the three-week French-led assault.
They are believed to be holding seven French hostages with them, complicating the operation.
After a lightning advance saw the French-led troops take back Timbuktu and Gao last week, French, Malian and Chadian troops have been working for nearly a week to secure Kidal.
But the former colonial power is keen to wrap up its leading role in the offensive, and Fabius said his country’s troops could rapidly withdraw from the fabled city of Timbuktu.
“We want to be rapidly relieved by the Afisma African forces in the cities that we hold,” Fabius told France Inter radio.
In Timbuktu a withdrawal “could take place very quickly, we are working on it,” he said.
France is eager to pass the baton to some 8,000 African troops pledged for the UN-backed Afisma force, still deploying at a snail’s pace, after sweeping to Mali’s aid on January 11 as the Islamists threatened to advance south towards the capital Bamako.
But France is walking a difficult line and President Francois Hollande vowed during a visit to Mali on Saturday that he would not abandon the country to chaos.
“France will stay by your side as long as necessary, as long as it takes for Africans themselves... to replace us,” he said.
The battle against the Islamists in Mali is expected to top the agenda of a meeting by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo which begins on Wednesday.
The Al Qaida-linked groups seized control of the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation — a vast stretch of desert larger than France, sparsely dotted with sandy towns — in the wake of a coup in Bamako in March last year.
The Islamists initially allied with Tawareq rebels — fighting a decades-old battle for independence of the arid zone where they have lived as desert nomads for centuries — but quickly cast them aside and imposed a brutal version of Islamic law.
Northern residents have celebrated throwing off the shackles of harsh Islamist rule, but are facing food shortages as Arab and Tawareq traders flee reprisal attacks against light-skinned Malians accused of backing the Islamists.
Britain-based aid group Oxfam said fighting had severely restricted traditional trade routes, and that markets were running low on supplies in the region, already crippled by drought when the crisis began.
“If traders do not come back soon and flows of food into northern Mali remain as limited as they are now, then it is likely that markets will not be properly stocked and prices will stay high — making it very difficult for people to get enough food to feed their families,” said Philippe Conraud, Oxfam country director in Mali.
“These traders are critical for local economies — and these economies have already been enormously weakened by almost a year of crisis.”