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ISLAMIST

Mali: French forces advance on rebel north

French air strikes destroyed the home of the leader of an Al-Qaeda-linked group in northern Mali as French-led forces advanced on Sunday on the Islamist stronghold of Timbuktu.

Mali: French forces advance on rebel north
Two French fighter jets landing in the Malian capital Bamako on January 18th. Photo: ECPAD/Jeremy Lempin/AFP

The overnight strikes in Kidal came 24 hours after French-led troops seized Gao, the most populated town in Mali's Islamist-controlled arid north, which is roughly the size of Texas. Gao is home to about 60,000 people.

"There were air raids on Islamist bases in Kidal," 1,500 kilometres (940 miles) north of the capital Bamako, a Malian security source said, adding that the home of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) chief Iyad Ag Ghaly was destroyed.

A local official and residents gave similar accounts.

Kidal has been a bastion of Ansar Dine, whose leader Iyad Ag Ghaly is a former soldier and a Tuareg ex-rebel, who formed the group last year.

In April last year after a coup in Bamako, an alliance of Tuareg rebels seeking an independent homeland in the north joined forces with several Islamist groups, seizing Kidal first and then the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu.

The Islamists quickly sidelined the Tuaregs, imposing a harsh version of Islamic sharia law in the region. Transgressors were flogged, stoned and executed, they banned music and television and forced women to wear veils.

France launched a military offensive on January 11 after Islamists captured a central town and pushed deeper into government territory towards the capital
Bamako.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the troops, having captured Gao, were advancing on Timbuktu, another key town held by Al Qaeda-linked rebels and a centre of Islamic learning for centuries.

Washington meanwhile decided to step up its role in the conflict by helping refuel French warplanes.

Washington's decision to agree to France's request for air refuelling facilities came after two weeks of deliberation. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave the news to his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian in a telephone conversation Saturday, a Pentagon spokesman said.

They also discussed plans for the Americans to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to facilitate the international effort in Mali.

The US military has an unparalleled fleet of more than 400 tankers equipped to refuel fighters and other warplanes in mid-air. France has about 14 such tankers.

 

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TERRORISM

‘Terrorists’ attack French soldiers in troubled Mali

French soldiers operating in troubled northern Mali were targeted by "terrorists" in an ambush on Sunday, the third attack in the country in just days.

'Terrorists' attack French soldiers in troubled Mali
Smoke and flames ascend from an army armoured vehicle in Gao, northwestern Mali, following an explosion on Sunday. Photo: STRINGER / AFP
The ambush underscores the fragile security situation in the West African nation as it prepares to go to the polls on July 29th.
 
A spokesman for the French military said there were no deaths among the French troops but it was not known if there were other casualties in the attack, which took place in the restive Gao region.
 
“French soldiers of the Barkhane military operation were ambushed by terrorists” near the town of Bourem, a Western military source told AFP, referring to the French mission in the country. 
 
A Malian military source confirmed the incident, which came two days after a deadly attack on the Mali headquarters of a five-nation regional force known as G5 Sahel.
 
Fatouma Wangara, a resident of Gao, said the French convoy was clearly targeted by a suicide car bomb.
 
“An armoured vehicle blocked the way and the car blew up,” she said.
 
Another resident told AFP that the area around the ambush had been sealed off by French soldiers.
 
The attack came as over 40 African heads of state are meeting for an African Union summit in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott with security high on the agenda.
 
'Hit the heart' of regional security
 
On Friday, a suicide attack on the headquarters of the regional Sahel force known as G5 killed two soldiers and a civilian in the Malian town of Savare. The Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, claimed Friday's bombing in a telephone call to the Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar. And on Saturday, four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in the central Mopti region.
 
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose country is part of the G5 and is hosting the two-day AU summit, warned earlier that security failings were hampering the work of the Sahel force. He said Friday's attack “hit the heart” of the region's security and lashed out at a lack of international help.
 
The G5 aims to have a total of 5,000 troops from five nations — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — but has faced funding problems. It operates alongside France's 4,000 troops in the troubled “tri-border” area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and alongside the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.
 
Mali's unrest stems from a 2012 ethnic Tuareg separatist uprising, which was exploited by jihadists in order to take over key cities in the north. The extremists were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.  But large stretches of the country remain out of the control of the foreign and Malian forces, which are frequent targets of attacks, despite a peace accord signed with Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.
 
The violence has also spilled over into both Burkina Faso and Niger.