DIABALY, Mali: Mali’s army chief yesterday said that his French-backed forces could reclaim the northern towns of Gao and fabled Timbuktu from Islamists in a month, as the United States began airlifting French troops to Mali.
French planes bombed a major base of the Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) near Timbuktu, a defence ministry official said.
Defence ministry spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard had earlier confirmed there were bombings “on the outskirts” of the town. International moves to aid the operations revved up with the US military airlifting French troops and equipment from France into Mali.
“We expect the mission to last for the next several days,” an AFRICOM spokesman, Chuck Prichard, said in Germany. “As of yet we’ve had two flights that have landed and we anticipate more in the coming days.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron was to chair a meeting of the National Security Council to consider what additional surveillance and transport assistance London could provide, as the European Union announced ¤20m of extra humanitarian aid.
Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and the United Arab Emirates are also providing transport planes or helicopters required to help move the African and French troops around Mali’s vast expanses.
France began its military operation on January 11 and has said it could deploy upwards of 2,500 troops which would eventually hand over control to a UN-sanctioned African force.
General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said the French-backed army was forging ahead for “the total liberation of northern Mali,” in an interview with French radio station RFI, a day after it rolled into two central towns held by Islamists.
“If the support remains consistent, it won’t take more than a month to free Gao and Timbuktu,” he said, referring to two of three main cities along with Kidal, in the vast, semi-arid north which has been occupied for 10 months.
The Al Qaeda-linked Islamists have subjected these towns to strict Shariah, whipping smokers and drinkers, banning music, forcing women to wear veils and long robes, amputating the limbs of thieves and stoning adulterers to death. A fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu was for centuries a key centre of Islamic learning and has become a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.
Today it is a battlefield, overrun by Islamist militants who have been razing its world-heritage religious sites in a destructive rampage that the UN cultural agency has deplored as “tragic”.
Dembele said troops from Niger and Chad were expected to come through Niger, which borders Mali on the east, and head to Gao, a key Islamist stronghold which has been pounded by French airstrikes.
A major boost to the regional force is a pledge by Mali’s neighbour Chad to deploy 2,000 soldiers there, whcih would bring the number of African soldiers to around 6,000. AFP