French take airport at Timbuktu as Islamist forces disappear

The 12th-century iconic city of Islamic learning and trade is both strategic and symbolic. French forces are punching north into the area held for the past year by Islamist forces. 

Ghislain Mariette, EMA-ECPAD/AP
This picture provided by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office and released Monday Jan. 28, 2013, shows Chadian soldiers securing Gao airport in northern Mali, on Saturday. French and Malian forces pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu on Sunday, as the two-week-long French mission gathered momentum against the Islamist extremists who have ruled the north for more than nine months.

French and Malian troops were poised early today to advance into the city of Timbuktu, a key objective in a French-led campaign to reclaim northern Mali from nearly a year of rule by Islamist militants.

Last night troops secured the city’s small airport, left derelict by a conflict that has seen northern Mali cut off from the rest of the world after militants took control. Soldiers bedded down last night in darkened halls, amid broken glass and animal droppings.

French forces have punched north over the weekend into territory held since early last year by Islamist militants. Yesterday, they and Malian troops entered the city of Gao, in the northeast, as French military columns crept over the desert toward Timbuktu.

The city is both strategic and symbolic, said Col. Paul Geze, the commander of France’s 21st  Marine Infantry Regiment, who is in charge of the advance. “It’s essential to take Timbuktu to show the determination of the French and Malian armies to reconquer the whole of the country,” he commented.

So far, their enemies have put up little resistance. French troops have rolled unopposed into many towns and villages in recent days. But more complex work lies ahead. Militants may reemerge as a guerrilla force, while Mali’s government and its partners have the daunting task of restoring order and public services after months of turmoil.

The crisis began a year ago, when Islamists used an ethnic Tuareg revolt as a springboard for their own takeover of northern Mali. That in turn triggered a coup d’état in the capital, Bamako, that unseated Mali’s elected president. An interim government has since been installed, pending presidential elections.

Meanwhile, Islamist militants set up harsh rule in towns and cities under their control. Many schools and hospitals closed, while ad hoc courts had people flogged and beaten for smoking cigarettes and listening to music, and their hands amputated for alleged theft, according to many reports.

Planning began last summer for a military intervention by West African troops, with Western backing. But a surprise Islamist advance two weeks ago and a distress call from Mali’s interim president saw French troops speed to Mali instead.

French column rolls north

Hundreds of French soldiers in troop trucks, armored cars, supply vehicles, and tanks rolled north from the central towns of Niono and Diabaly over the weekend, days after scattering Islamists who had attacked the area. On Saturday afternoon, they reached the town of Léré, a trading hub near the Mauritanian border.

Islamists from Ansar al Din, one of three main groups that overran northern Mali, held sway in Léré until last week, says Hamou Ag Mossa, who runs the town’s clinic as a liaison of Doctors Without Borders, a French medical nongovernmental organization.

“Most of the Islamists here were Tuareg and began as MNLA,” he says, referring to the Tuareg rebel group that kick-started Mali’s crisis. “Then they traded the MNLA brand for the Ansar al Din one.”

This past December, things took a nastier turn, Mr. Ag Mossa says. Ansar al Din reinforcements – some Malian, some foreign – arrived from Timbuktu. After that, beatings and floggings were enforced, and many townspeople fled. Today, Léré is a ghost town of silent streets and padlocked doors.

According to Ag Mossa, most Islamist fighters tore out of Léré on motorbikes about 10 days ago to attack Diabaly, to the south. Only a handful came back. Those skipped town again yesterday morning.

As far as Ag  Mossa’s cousin, a Quranic instructor named Ibrahim Ag Al Jumat, is concerned, none need ever return.

“We can’t accept them. We know what Islam is, and Islam and the rifle don’t go together,” he says, drinking tea with Ag Mossa beneath a jacaranda tree in the yard of a house.

In Islamists' wake, lots of damage

Mr. Ag Al Jumat’s sentiments evoke fears that last’s years violence may leave wounds in Malian society too deep to heal. Ag Mossa, for his part, points to reconciliation in Léré after periodic Tuareg rebellions as grounds for optimism.

However, Islamist rule has also caused other damage in the north. Electricity is down, economic life has withered, and state facilities have been trashed. Yesterday morning, French troops rolled into the town of Niafounké, north of Léré. They found its lakeside fishing port converted to a military barracks covered with jihadi graffiti, and now deserted.

“Every place they occupied, the Islamists turned it directly to their own uses,” says Youssef Maiga, a builder who turned out with hundreds of locals to cheer the French arrival. As French soldiers accompanying journalists mixed with the crowds, Mr. Maiga approached a lieutenant.

“Will more of you come? We have nothing here,” Maiga said.

“We’re not going to leave you,” the lieutenant replied.

How long will French stay?

That could prove to be a long commitment. France wants to hand military operations over to Malian and other West African troops as soon as possible. But Paris has also vowed to stay in Mali until the country is stable and on track for presidential elections.

Taking Timbuktu is a key step forward, General Barrera told reporters yesterday at an airstrip outside the town of Goundam, south of Timbuktu, where French and Malian forces mustered this afternoon.

Around 600 French and 120 Malian soldiers are taking part in the operation along with helicopters and French fighter jets, said Geze. With anywhere from zero to 200 Islamist fighters believed to be inside Timbuktu, getting control of the city could take “several hours, or several days,” Barrera said.

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