Tuesday, January 29, 2013

With Timbuktu Retaken, France Signals It Plans to Pull Back in Mali

The world as a whole, and particularly the people of northern Africa, owe France a great debt of gratitude. The French had nothing to gain from routing the Islamists in Mali. They simply acted because Mali was formerly a French colony and France wanted to do what is right and good.

The New York Times is reporting this morning that French and Malian troops have captured the famous desert city of Timbuktu from the Islamists who, before France intervened, had taken over the northern half of Mali and had been imposing its totalitarian brand of religion on that nation.

SEGOU, Mali — French paratroopers arrived in the ancient desert oasis of Timbuktu on Monday, securing its airport and main roads as thousands of residents poured out of its narrow, mud-walled streets to greet French and Malian troops, waving the two countries’ flags, with whoops, cheers and shouts. ... The rapid advance to Timbuktu, a day after French and African troops took firm control of the former rebel stronghold of Gao, may spell the beginning of the end of France’s major involvement in the conflict here.

Pretty soon, the French expect to depart.

The French president, Fran├žois Hollande, suggested on Monday that French troops might soon stop their northward advance, leaving it to African soldiers to pursue the militants into their redoubts in the desert north. “We are winning this battle,” Mr. Hollande said in televised remarks. “When I say, ‘We,’ this is the Malian army, this is the Africans, supported by the French. ... They’re the ones who will go into the area of the north, which we know is the most difficult because the terrorists are hidden there and can still lead operations that are extremely dangerous for neighboring countries and for Mali,” he said.

The forces associated with Al-Qaeda did not put up much of a fight.

French airstrikes had preceded the ground operation and French troops met no resistance, said Colonel Burkhard. The militants who had been controlling the city appeared to have fled northward. ... To the east, the city of Gao is now under the full control of French and African troops, he said, with a contingent of 450 Malian soldiers joined by 40 soldiers from Niger and 40 from Chad. French special forces killed about 15 fighters in what were described as brief but intense firefights when they arrived just south of the city late Friday night, and perhaps 10 more militants on Sunday night on the city’s outskirts.

Partly because of the religious extremism of the Islamists and partly because Mali is divided on racial lines--the south is black and the north is olive-skinned Arabs, Berbers and Tuaregs--the liberated Malian population has been taking revenge on everyone whose skin matches that of the Islamists.

Angry crowds shouted at suspected Islamist extremists in the back of an army truck in Gao, Mali, on Tuesday, after the four suspects were arrested. Malian soldiers prevented the mob from attacking them. ... Television footage from Timbuktu captured scenes of jubilation as thousands of people drove cars, trucks and motorbikes through the streets, honking their horns.

France24 has a more extensive report regarding widespread looting going on in Mali.

A day after French and Malian troops gained control of Timbuktu from rebels, tensions were rising in the historic northern Malian city as hundreds of people broke into shops owned by ethnic Arabs and Tuareg on Tuesday in a backlash against perceived collaborators. “After Timbuktu fell yesterday, the situation is now very different,” said FRANCE 24’s Matthieu Mabin, reporting from the centre of Timbuktu. “It’s a time of revenge here and we can see people – everybody, children, old men, women – attacking Arab shops in a misguided idea that those shops were linked to Islamist fighters, which is absolutely not true in many cases.”

While the northern forces which had been ravaging northern Mali were Islamists, the war in the north had begun as a movement by the non-Islamist Tuaregs to gain independence. Because of that, the current backlash is also anti-Tuareg.

A vast, multi-ethnic West African nation, Mali is home to a variety of ethnic groups, including the Tuaregs and other ethnic groups of North African Berber origins, which comprise about 10 per cent of Mali's total population of 14 million. Signs of a backlash against the Tuareg and other lighter skinned groups – commonly called Arabs – were evident nearly 10 months ago in the capital of Bamako shortly after northern Mali fell to a motley mix of Tuareg and Islamist rebels.

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