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France rolls north in Mali, but daunting second phase looms

French troops entered the once Islamist-occupied city of Kidal today without opposition. But dealing with Islamist guerrillas and placating secular Taureg rebels will likely prove more difficult.

Francois Rihouay/Reuters
A Malian soldier displays ammunition seized from Islamists rebels after their departure, in Timbuktu, Tuesday. French troops have taken control of the airport in the northern Malian town of Kidal, the last rebel stronghold in the north, the French army and a local official told Reuters on Wednesday.

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Only 24 hours after securing the city of Timbuktu, French troops have taken control of the airport in one of the last major northern cities in Mali today, part of their northern sweep to clear the country of Islamist militants.

This could “mark the end of the first phase of the French military intervention,” reports the BBC, though “the difficult task of chasing the fighters down across the vast desert” still remains.

French troops arrived last night on four planes, and were not met by force or resistance in Kidal, the capital of a desert region with the same name, reports the Associated Press. The airport has been secured, but it is unclear whether or not the city itself has been overtaken. A French general based in Paris noted that the operation in Kidal was “ongoing.”

According to the Financial Times, The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular group that aims to liberate northern Mali for the ethnic Tuareg, claims it entered the city on Monday and that Islamist militants had already fled.

The MNLA, which has been fighting for Taureg independence from Mali for more than 50 years, says that it is willing to work with the French to track down and eradicate terrorism in the country, however it refuses the return of the Malian army to Kidal, reports the BBC.

“You are talking about two different armies. We have direct contact with the French and we have asked them for a co-ordinated approach against the terrorists. But the Malian army has nothing to do in Kidal,” Mossa Ag Attaher, a spokesman for the MNLA told the Financial Times.

Mr. Attaher noted that fighters have defected from a Tuareg-led Islamist group Ansar Dine to the MNLA since France first stepped into Mali at the behest of its president earlier this month. The blurring of lines between these groups and the persistence of the MNLA’s grievances is but one of the complications faced in Mali after the initial success of French and accompanying Malian troops overtaking some of its major northern cities including Gao and Timbuktu. The FT reports:

The re-emergence of the MNLA underscores the complexity of the conflict France has waded into. The French risk alienating their allies in the Malian government if they leave Kidal in separatist hands. But longer-term stability hinges on a negotiated solution with Tuareg rebels, experts say.

As talk of France’s success spreads – including French President Françoise Hollande’s mention that France “is winning in Mali" – and it becomes more evident that the French hope to transition out of Mali, handing off control to Malian and African forces, some warn there are important past lessons to heed. The Los Angeles Times reports “lessons learned in the Western intervention in Libya less than two years ago caution against a premature retreat by the French and their arm's-length U.S. and European allies...”

While the United Nations has endorsed the plans to deploy 3,300 troops from the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, those fighters lack training and familiarity with the challenging desert conditions that the veteran militants of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb navigate with confidence.

As the former colonial power in Mali and much of North Africa, France runs the risk of stirring resentment if it stays too long or appears to be reasserting its authority in the region. On the other hand, the experts say, Paris and its allies shouldn’t leave the newly liberated towns vulnerable to recurring waves of invasion and takeover by militants who are only scattered, not defeated.

An opinion in Al Jazeera notes another challenge facing Mali: Islamist militants in Mali have “already switched from occupation to insurgency mode. Holding cities is no longer part of their strategy,” writes Andy Morgan, an author of Tuareg history and former manager of Tuareg music groups.

What's certain is the Malian army is entirely incapable of pursuing the fight against a protracted Islamist guerrilla insurgency in the north on their own, or indeed, with the help of ECOWAS forces. So unless France fancies the prospect of leaving its soldiers, tanks and MIGs up in Northern Mali for years to come - a most unappealing prospect no doubt - they'll need to build coalitions with other local anti-Islamist groups who have at least some chance of ridding northern Mali of Islamist violence. Who could those groups be? The MNLA? The MIA? The Tchadian army? Algeria? … From France and Mali's point of the view, the list of candidates is unappetising to say the least.

Whatever the scenario, the Rubik's cube like complexity of Mali's problems, especially in the north, presents one of the greatest conflict resolution challenges in recent African history. Success relies on solving a short list of problems, each of which look like a challenge fit for gods rather than mere mortals.

But many locals whose cities were liberated over the weekend and this week may be more concerned with their immediate security, and feelings of reprisal are starting to bubble in some areas, reports The New York Times.

“The city is free, but I think the areas close by are still dangerous,” said Mahamane Touré, a Gao resident reached by telephone from Bamako, the capital. “These guys are out there,” Mr. Touré said, referring to Islamist militants that controlled his city for months.

Mr. Touré, who spent the evening watching soccer on television and listening to music with friends, said that although everyone was enjoying the new freedoms, the legacy of Islamist occupation was evident in the hardship of everyday life.

“The price of gasoline is almost double, and the price of food is very high,” Mr. Touré said. “There are still things in the market, but no one has any money and there is no aid.”

Reporters and photographers in Timbuktu, the storied desert oasis farther north that the French-Malian forces secured on Monday, saw looters pillaging shops and other businesses, with some saying the merchants were mainly Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians who had supported the Islamist radicals who summarily executed, stoned and mutilated people they suspected of being nonbelievers during their 10-month occupation.

Alex Crawford, a television correspondent for Britain’s Sky News, said, “This is months and months of frustration and repression finally erupting.”

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