France bombs supply routes in Mali
GAO, Mali – Agence France-Presse
French troops pass a road block on the airport road in Gao. AFP Photo
French fighter jets have pounded Islamist supply bases in northern Mali seeking to flush the insurgents out of hiding as France and the U.S. on Feb. 4 called for African troops to quickly take over the operation.
After a three-week campaign by French-led forces drove the extremists from most of their strongholds, including the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, dozens of French warplanes carried out major air strikes on rebel training and logistics centers on Feb. 3 in Mali's mountainous northeast, near the Algerian border.
"It is about destroying their rear bases, their depots," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio.
"They have taken refuge in the north and the northeast but they can only stay there long-term if they have ways to replenish their supplies. So the army, in a very efficient manner, is stopping them from doing so." The radical Islamists who controlled northern Mali for 10 months have fled into the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the Kidal region, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves.
Complicating the operation, they are believed to be holding seven French hostages with them, kidnapped in Mali and Niger in 2011 and 2012.
Algeria has beefed up its positions on the Malian border to prevent "the infiltration of terrorist groups," Mohamed Baba Ali, a member of Parliament from the southern town of Tamanrasset, told AFP.
Algeria was reluctantly drawn into the Mali conflict when it agreed to let French warplanes use its airspace.
Days later, Islamist gunmen attacked an Algerian gas field, unleashing a hostage crisis that left 37 foreigners dead.
France is eager to pass the baton in Mali to some 8,000 African troops pledged for the UN-backed AFISMA force, still deploying at a snail's pace, after sweeping to its former colony's aid on Jan. 11 as the Islamists threatened to advance south towards the capital Bamako.
"We want to be rapidly relieved by the AFISMA African forces in the cities that we hold," the French foreign minister said.
Despite being keen to share the military burden, French President François Hollande vowed during a visit to Mali on Feb. 2 that he would not abandon the country to chaos.
Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly urged France to stay on longer.