French warplanes on Feb. 2 carried out air-strikes in the remaining pocket of Mali’s far north still under rebel control—but exactly which rebels remains unclear. The air-strikes apparently targeted rebel bases in Tessalit—a mountainous area near the Algerian border—and outside Kidal, the last major town still in rebel hands. (See map.) French forces claim to have captured Kidal’s airport on Jan. 30, as prelude to taking the town, following the pattern in Timbuktu days earlier. But one day before that, the secular Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) claimed to have seized Kidal from jihadist forces. The MNLA have portrayed their advance into Kidal as part of a coordinated campaign against the “terrorists”; however, the fate of Kidal could be the test of whether there is any place for Tuareg autonomy in the new order.
It seems that the MNLA may have also taken Kidal by effecting a split in the jihadist faction that was in control there, Ansar Dine. Rebel fighters in the town spoke to French news agency AFP, claiming that Kidal is jointly controlled by the MNLA and the new Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA). The name implies an embrace of the MNLA’s demand for an independent Tuareg homeland in “Azawad” (northern Mali), but also the Islamist ideology of Ansar Dine. MIA fighter Mohamed ag-Aharib told AFP: “Currently in Kidal, there are fighters from the MNLA and MIA.”
Upon breaking from Ansar Dine, MIA’s leader Alghabass ag-Intalla issued a statement to the world media renouncing “extremism and terrorism.”
Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore has apparently offered to hold talks with the MNLA in order to help secure Kidal, telling Reuters: “The only group that we could think of negotiating with with some results is certainly the MNLA. But of course on the condition that the MNLA drops any pretence to a territorial claim, that it accepts the integration of Mali once and for all.”
Paris, meanwhile, is said to believe that seven French hostages held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or its allies are probably in the Kidal region. The captors had theatened to kill the hostages if French combat troops set foot on Malian soil, and it is unclear if they are still alive.
With access to the remote town blocked to international journalists, reports of MNLA-MIA control of Kidal have been impossible to verify. When contacted by radio France 24, a French Defense Ministry spokesman declined to comment on “ongoing operations.” (AFP, Feb. 4; BBC News, RFI, Feb. 3; Euronews, Reuters, Jan. 31; France 24, Jan. 28)
UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng on Feb. 1 warned of an increased risk of reprisal attacks against ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilian populations in northern Mali. Dieng was expressed particular concerns over allegations of human rights violations committed by the Malian army and reports of mob lynching and looting of properties belonging to Arab and Tuareg communities. Dieng urged all actors, including the Malian army, to adhere to international humanitarian and human rights laws. (Jurist, Feb. 2)
French President François Hollande has pledged to withdraw French combat troops from Mali once control has been established over its entire territory and a UN-backed African military force has taken over. Meanwhile, other European powers are preparing to send in forces—ostensibly in a noncombatant capacity. Germany is planning to dispatch some 40 military advisors to support Mali’s armed forces. Speaking on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference Feb. 2, Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the Bundeswehr troops could be in Mali by early next month. The cabinet and the Bundestag still have to approve the plan. (DW, Feb. 3)