French forces assumed command of the airport in Kidal, the last major city outside control of the Malian government, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said by phone, declining to give details because operations are continuing.
The seizure of the airport follows an operation Jan. 26 and 27 in which French and Malian troops took territory from Gao to Mopti, dislodging Islamist militants as part of their campaign to regain government control of two-thirds of the nation that vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer.
Touareg rebels said they control Kidal after driving out Islamist militants on Jan. 28 and are prepared to help France secure the city. The Touaregs allied with Islamist militants last year to take control of northern Mali before the Islamists gained dominance.
“Kidal is in total control of MNLA,” Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a spokesman for the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, said by phone from Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. “We will continue our progression.”
The MNLA, whose attacks on the Malian army a year ago prompted a March coup by soldiers who said they weren’t equipped to fight the rebels, wants talks with Mali’s government and pledged to continue its fight for autonomy, Ag Assaleh said.
“If Mali will not negotiate, we are going to fight as far the border of Azawad at Douenzta,” he said, referring to the town in the southern part of the rebel-held territory that was seized by French and Malian troops last week.
Mali’s year of crisis led to 4.5 percent contraction of its $10.6 billion economy in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. Growth is forecast at 3 percent in 2013, partly because gold mining hasn’t been affected by the conflict, the IMF said on Nov. 14. Companies including AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. (ANG) and Randgold Resources Ltd. (RRS) are among the companies operating in the government-controlled south.
Malian authorities should “engage in talks with legitimate representatives of the northern people” including local government officials and civil society, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said in an e-mailed statement today. The discussion should include “armed non-terrorist groups that recognize the integrity of Mali.”
Troops from the African-led intervention force, known by its acronym Afisma, will take over from the French forces under a United Nations-backed plan. The number of soldiers has reached 2,900, according to the French military. That includes 1,400 soldiers from Chad, 500 from Niger, 400 Togolese, 200 from Nigeria, 150 from Burkina Faso and about 100 each from Senegal and Benin.
Donors including the U.S., the European Union and France pledged $455.5 million to support the African force yesterday as Western allies expanded their involvement in the conflict.
U.S. officials reached an agreement with Niger, on Mali’s eastern border, allowing deployment of American military personnel and possibly drones to combat Islamist militants across the region. The U.K. is set to deploy as many as 200 personnel to help train the African force, in addition to the 400 offered by Britain to an EU mission to build up the Malian army, said Jean-Christophe Gray, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Unless dramatically more logistical, financial and personnel support for Afisma is provided by African countries and the West, a few months from now the Touareg Islamists and their al-Qaeda allies will likely re-take Kidal, Gao, Timbuktu and reverse the French gains and once again threaten Bamako,” Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, managing director of New York-based DaMina Advisors LLP, said in an e-mailed note today.
Control of Kidal’s airport comes a day after Malian troops entered historic Timbuktu after French forces encircled the city and seized its airport. A “treasure” of ancient manuscripts in the city, designated as a World Heritage Site in 1990, may have survived a fire caused by fighting between the French and the insurgents, said Mauro Nobili, a Cape Town-based researcher at Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute.
“Of course we are worried,” Nobili said. “The amount of the material and its value is amazing. But from what we can tell, the manuscripts have not been touched.”
An estimated 380,000 people have fled northern Mali since the start of the conflict last year, according to a Jan. 29 statement from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. That includes refugees into neighboring countries including Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, as well as people displaced inside Mali, the UNHCR said.
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