TUAREG rebels in northern Mali have captured two senior Islamist insurgents fleeing French air strikes and heading towards the Algerian border.
Pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels said one of their patrols had seized Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, an Islamist leader who imposed harsh sharia law in the desert town of Timbuktu, and Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of a French hostage by the al-Qaeda splinter group Mujwa.
“We chased an Islamist convoy close to the frontier and arrested the two men the day before yesterday,” Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a spokesman for the MNLA, said yesterday from Burkina Faso. “They have been questioned and sent to Kidal.”
France has deployed 3,500 ground troops, as well as warplanes and armoured vehicles, in its three-week-old Operation Serval, which has broken the Islamists’ ten-month grip on northern towns.
It is pressing ahead with its bombing campaign against al-Qaeda’s Saharan desert camps but is due to gradually hand over to a UN-backed African force of some 8,000 troops.
Paris and its international partners want to prevent the Islamists from using Mali’s vast desert north as a base to launch attacks on neighbouring African countries and the West.
After meeting French president Francois Hollande in Paris, US vice-president Joe Biden praised the “decisiveness and incredible competence” of France’s operations and backed France’s call for UN peacekeepers to be deployed in Mali. He said: “We agreed on the need to, as quickly as reasonably possible, establish an African-led mission to Mali and, as quickly as is prudent, transition that mission to the United Nations.”
Paris believes deploying UN peacekeepers could eliminate problems over funding the mission and fears of ethnic reprisals by Malian troops against light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs associated with the Islamists.
The MNLA, which seized control of northern Mali last year, only to be pushed aside by better-armed Islamist groups, regained control of its northern stronghold of Kidal last week, when Islamist fighters fled from French air strikes and into hideouts in the nearby desert and Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.
The Tuareg group says it is willing to help the French-led mission by hunting down Islamists. It has also offered to hold peace talks with the government in a bid to heal wounds between Mali’s restive Saharan north and the black African-dominated south.
“Until there is a peace deal, we cannot hold national elections,” Ag Assaleh said, referring to interim Malian president Dioncounda Traore’s plan to hold polls on 31 July.
Many in the capital Bamako – including army leaders who blame the MNLA for executing some of their troops in the Saharan town of Aguelhoc last year – strongly reject any talks.
“One of the first conditions for reconciliation is to disarm rebel groups,” Malian foreign minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly said in Paris. “We must first liberate the north of Mali and then we can organise elections.”
French special forces took the airport in Kidal last Tuesday, reaching the most northern city previously held by the Islamist alliance. Though the MNLA says it now controls Kidal, reporters in the town yesterday saw a contingent of heavily armed Chadian troops – part of a UN-backed African mission – deploy to a barracks there.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said warplanes were continuing bombing raids on Islamists in Mali’s far north to destroy their supply lines and flush them out of remote areas.
The rebels’ retreat to hideouts in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains – where Paris believes they are holding seven French hostages – heralds a potentially more complicated new phase of France’s intervention in its former colony as special forces try to track the rebels down.