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KIDAL, Mali/PARIS: Tua-reg rebels in northern Mali said yesterday that they had captured two senior Islamist insurgents fleeing French air strikes toward the Algerian border, as France pressed ahead with its bombing campaign against Al Qaeda’s Saharan desert camps.
Pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels said one of their patrols seized Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, an Islamist leader who imposed harsh sharia law in the desert town of Timbuktu, and Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of a French hostage by the Al Qaeda splinter group MUJWA.
“We chased an Islamist convoy close to the frontier and arrested the two men the day before yesterday,” Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, spokesman for the MNLA, told Reuters from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. “They have been questioned and sent to Kidal.”
France has deployed 3,500 ground troops, as well as warplanes and armoured vehicles in its three-week-old Operation Serval which has broken the Islamists’ 10-month grip on northern towns. It is now due to gradually hand over to a UN-backed African force of some 8,000 troops, known as AFISMA.
Paris and its international partners want to prevent the Islamists from using Mali’s vast desert north as a base to launch attacks on neighbouring African countries and the West.
After meeting French President Francois Hollande in Paris, US Vice President Joe Biden praised the “decisiveness and incredible competence” of France’s operations. He backed France’s call for UN peacekeepers to be deployed in Mali.
“We agreed on the need to, as quickly as reasonably possible, establish an African-led mission to Mali and, as quickly as is prudent, transition that mission to the United Nations,” Biden said, flanked by Hollande.
Paris believes that deploying UN peacekeepers to Mali could eliminate problems over funding the African mission and fears of ethnic reprisals by Malian troops against light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs associated with the Islamists.
The Tuareg group says it is willing to help the French-led mission by hunting down Islamists. It has offered to hold peace talks with the government in a bid to heal wounds between Mali’s restive Saharan north and the black African-dominated south.
“Until there is a peace deal, we cannot hold national elections,” Ag Assaleh said, referring to interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore’s plan to hold polls on July 31.