French forces have secured control of Kidal, the last major city stronghold of Islamist rebels in northern Mali. The Ansar Dine rebels had already left the city ahead of the advance, and the French forces met no resistance.
The combined force of French and Malian forces have now swept through three major cities within days of each other, encountering no resistance from Islamist rebels. The French campaign in Mali will now move into its second phase – chasing down rebels hiding in the desert and mountains, and handing over control to local security forces.
Secular Tuareg Rebels
Any handover of power in Kidal by French forces to the government of Mali will be complicated by the presence of secular Tuareg rebels.
Tuareg rebels were responsible for launching the insurgency which took control of the northern half of the country last year, before the Islamist breakaway group Ansar Dine took control. According to the BBC French soldiers entering Kidal found it occupied by secular Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The MNLA has said that it would support the French campaign to oust Ansar Dine Islamists, but that they would not allow government troops to return. With reports of advancing Malian soldiers committing atrocities against ethnic Tuareg, the MNLA may find some considerable support for this position amongst the local population. It is not yet clear whether the French plan to oust the MNLA themselves in order to hand over to control to the government in the south, or whether they will broker some form of negotiation, but the later seems more likely. The government of Mali has said that it is open to the idea of negotiating with the MNLA.
An MNLA spokesman speaking to the BCC said that its fighters had entered Kidal on Saturday, and that the Islamist had already left by then.
Islamists from Ansar Dine, the group founded by Iyad Ag Ghaly which has links to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have now been driven from all of the major cities. Iyad Ag Ghaly is thought to be hiding out in the mountains north of Kidal, along with Abou Zeid from AQIM.
France is now waiting on the deployment of thousands of local African troops to support them in the second phase of ‘Operation Serval’ – hunting down the last of the Islamists. They will also be holding their breath to see if the Islamists themselves move into a second phase – a guerrilla campaign of suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices. Having put up little resistance to the French advance it is not clear whether Ansar Dine has capitulated, or if they are simply choosing to fight the war on their terms rather than on French terms.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday that his country planned to leave Mali “quickly”, after hading over control to African forces. It may well be that the Islamists are simply waiting for the French to leave before starting their fight-back.
Several hundred West African troops are already in Mali, but thousands more are expected to arrive soon.
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