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Pledges of international aid and military support are flooding into Mali just 2-1/2 weeks after France launched a military offensive in the West African country. And though spirits are high after French forces reportedly took the cities of Gao and Timbuktu in recent days, many warn fully stamping out Islamist rebels in Mali’s north and neighboring countries could take years.
Yesterday, close to 1,000 French and 200 Malian troops overtook the airport in Timbuktu, prior to entering the ancient city. Residents told the BBC that the Islamists departed days earlier, after bombs were dropped on their bases there.
“There were no shots fired, no blood spilt. Not even passive resistance with traps," a colonel heading the French helicopter operations in Timbuktu said of overtaking the city.
During the weekend troops also secured the city of Gao. Both Timbuktu and Gao are important “strategically and symbolically” since they have been under the Islamist rebel control since last April.
But according to The Christian Science Monitor’s correspondent in Mali, the relative ease with which troops have been able to reclaim cities and towns from the Islamists doesn’t necessarily mean their work is near completion.
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 re-emerge 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.
… 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.
When or how France will leave Mali may be an increasingly salient challenge for the former colonial power, whose intervention, at the behest of Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traoré, came months before a Western-backed, West African-led plan was set to go into effect.
France has pledged to stay in Mali until it is stabilized, but with unknown numbers of Islamists still in the country that end goal is fuzzy. On Monday, French President Francois Hollande said at a news conference: “We are winning in Mali,” reports CNN.
The international community, meanwhile, has stepped up in recent days to make sure Mali defeats the Islamist rebels there, who have limited the rights and activities of locals since last year.
The African Union agreed yesterday to contribute $50 million to the mission in Mali. According to the BBC, “in a list of donations carried on the AU’s Twitter” feed today, Japan pledged $120 million; Germany $20 million; India and China $1 million each; and the US $96 million.
And the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which initially pledged 3,300 troops in Mali, expects to see that number to rise. “Up until now, a dozen African nations have offered to contribute to this force, bringing its total to 5,000 or 6,000,” reports the South African government news agency.
France currently has close to 3,000 troops in Mali, and an estimated 8,000 African troops are expected to eventually take over, reports the BBC.
In an effort to enable Malians to maintain control over their territory once international powers step back, officials said today that European Union countries are meeting in Brussels to discuss contributing more troops, reports the Associated Press. The mission could include deploying 500 people, half of whom would be working as military trainers, by April 1.
The United States, for its part, has said it will not deploy combat troops to Mali. However, during the weekend the US agreed to provide support for in-flight refueling to French troops there, reports Bloomberg News. In a sign of increased US involvement in the region, the US and Niger signed a pact that will allow US military personnel to be stationed in the country, which sits just east of Mali. Bloomberg reports the plan has been in the works for more than a year, and could possibly include the stationing of US drones in Niger.
According to the AP the US has already been providing help in the region:
The U.S. has been providing military transport to help move French troops and equipment. The U.S. flew one refueling mission on Sunday, delivering 33,000 pounds of fuel, the U.S. Africa Command said.
The U.S. is also assisting six African countries: Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo with "non-lethal equipment" and training, as well as transport to move troops to Mali, [Don Yamamoto US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs] said.
Yesterday in Timbuktu, crowds came out to cheer on the French and Malian forces that liberated their home. Flags from both countries were flying, and people were dancing and celebrating, according to a second Monitor report.
“Under the Islamists, you could never see this – people listening to music together in the open air,” says Cissé Al Mansour, a cook in Timbuktu.
The United Nations reports that more than 11,000 people have been forced to flee their homes due to the fighting in Mali, and an estimated 23,000 have been displaced since the crisis started, according to Bloomberg.