Chad Says Al Qaeda Commander Killed In Mali, France Cautious

One of al Qaeda’s most feared commanders in Africa, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, has been killed by Chadian forces in northern Mali, Chad’s President Idriss Deby said on Friday.

French officials said they could not confirm the report.

“It was Chadian forces who killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid,” Deby told opposition politicians in the presence of journalists after a funeral ceremony for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting at the weekend.

Chadian soldiers with support from French special forces and fighter jets are hunting down pockets of al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the border region with Algeria after a seven-week French-led campaign broke Islamist domination of northern Mali.

The death of Abou Zeid, who has earned AQIM tens of millions of dollars with a spate of kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahara over the last five years, would be a significant but far from fatal blow to the group.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed mastermind of a mass hostage-taking at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria last month, remains at large. So does Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag Ghali, who was this week placed on the U.S. global terrorist list.

Sources close to Islamist militants and tribal elders had earlier said Abou Zeid, blamed for kidnapping at least 20 Westerners in the Sahara, was among 40 militants killed within the past few days in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

Algeria’s Ennahar television, which is well connected with Algerian security services, had reported his death on Thursday but there was no official confirmation.

A former smuggler turned jihadi, Algerian-born Abou Zeid is regarded as one of the most ruthless operators of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He is believed to have executed British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.

A trusted lieutenant of AQIM’s leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, Abou Zeid imposed a violent form of sharia law during Islamist domination of the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.

“The death of Abou Zeid has been confirmed by several of his supporters who have come back from the mountains,” said Ibrahim Oumar Toure, a mechanic in the northern Malian town of Kidal who worked with Islamist rebels and remains in contact with them.

Members of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group, who have been acting as scouts for French and Chadian forces, said Islamist prisoners seized during the fighting confirmed Abou Zeid and another militant leader had been killed.

However, French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said she could neither confirm nor deny the report, and French officials urged caution. An official MNLA spokesman said the group had no evidence to prove he was dead.

French radio RFI and Algerian daily El Khabar reported that DNA tests were being conducted on members of Abou Zeid’s family to confirm whether a body recovered by French troops after fighting in Adrar des Ifoghas was indeed the Islamist leader.

HOLLANDE SAYS OPERATION NEARS END

In a speech on Friday, French President Francois Hollande said the operation in Mali was in its final stage and he was not obliged to confirm Abou Zeid’s death.

“Terrorist groups have taken refuge and are hiding in an especially difficult zone,” he said. “Information is out there. I don’t have to confirm it because we must reach the end of the operation.”

A U.S. official and a Western diplomat, however, said the reports appeared to be credible.

According to local sources in Kidal, MNLA Tuareg rebels, who are working with French forces, had located Abou Zeid’s fighters and handed over the coordinates for French jets to strike.

“They were hidden in mountain caves and were building bombs for suicide attacks when they were killed,” Toure said.

Abou Zeid’s death will be of particular interest to the French government as he is believed to be holding at least four French citizens kidnapped from Niger in 2010.

After its success in dislodging al Qaeda fighters from northern Mali’s towns, France and its African allies have faced a mounting wave of suicide bombings and guerrilla-style raids by Islamists in northern Malian towns.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Geneva on Friday that a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace French troops in Mali should be discussed as soon as possible.

African Leaders Call For U.N. Mandate For Mali Mission

West African leaders on Thursday called for a regional military operation against al Qaeda-linked rebels in north Mali to be transformed into a U.N. peacekeeping mission as quickly as possible to secure desperately needed funding.

France sent troops into its former colony last month to drive out Islamist fighters, claiming their seizure of Mali’s north last year posed a threat to international security.

Paris hopes that from March it can start withdrawing its 4,000 troops but is awaiting the effective deployment of an African force (AFISMA), plagued by logistical and financing setbacks.

Meeting in Ivory Coast’s capital Yamoussoukro, presidents from West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS backed calls from France, the United States and Mali itself for the mission to receive a U.N. peacekeeping mandate.

“This shouldn’t distract from ongoing operations on the ground,” ECOWAS commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo told Reuters.

“It’s simply an indication that, once peace has returned, we need the support of the United Nations system both for logistical and financial support.”

Some two thirds of the 8,000 troops of the African-led mission (AFISMA) have deployed to Mali.

Many still lack the capacity to carry out combat operations and remain in southern Mali, leaving French forces and around 2,000 troops from Chad to secure northern towns and hunt down Islamist fighters hiding in desert and mountain redoubts.

After struggling for months to secure funding for its deployment, international donors pledged over $455 million for Mali at a meeting in Addis Ababa last month.

With the number of troops more than doubling since deployment plans were first hashed out last year, ECOWAS projects the cost of the mission at nearly $1 billion this year.

Transformation to a peacekeeping mission would ensure funding from the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations and facilitate the deployment of air assets essential for moving troops in Mali’s vast northern desert.

However, a decision by the U.N. Security Council remains weeks, if not months, away. France’s U.N. envoy said on Wednesday that the Security Council would ask Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report by end-March on the possibility of creating a peacekeeping force.

Despite the rapid French advance which has seen the Islamists’ former urban strongholds rapidly retaken, security on the ground in Mali remains tenuous, amid a mounting wave of guerilla raids on towns and suicide attacks.

French and Chadian forces are currently hunting die-hard Islamists holed up in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. Algerian television reported on Thursday that French troops there had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a leading al Qaeda field commander.

Afcon 2013: Nigeria Yet To Receive Prize Money

Reports have it that the Confederation of African Football (CAF) is yet to remit to Nigeria the cash value for winning the Africa Cup of Nations.

The amount in question is $1.5 million (about N240million) and is the bounty the Super Eagles are entitled to for defeating Burkina Faso in the epic final on February 10, to claim the 28th Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa.

At the grand celebration in Johannesburg, CAF only openly handed Nigeria the gold plated trophy as well as  gold medals to the players and technical officials without a dummy cheque, indicating the total cash prize due to the winners.

A member of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) board Dr. Shehu Adamu, confirmed to THISDAY on Monday night that the ‘Glasshouse’ was yet to receive the prize money from CAF two weeks after Nigeria won the continent’s biggest football showpiece.

Mr. Adamu, who is the chairman of the NFF Finance and Appropriations Committee, said he could not understand why there was a delay in the transaction as the Nigerian federation had already submitted its bank details to CAF, waiting for its account to be credited.
“We have not received any alert from CAF regarding the Africa Cup of Nations prize money. We have sent our account number to them and the money is yet to hit the account. We are still waiting for them to pay the money,” Mr. Adamu said.

It is being suggested that CAF is playing hide and seek by delaying the prize money redemption as a strategy to make Nigeria pay the disputed TV rights fee of 8.5m euros (over N1 billion) which CAF President Issa Hayatou claimed Nigeria was owing to the confederation over the broadcast of the Africa Cup of Nations.

The refusal of Nigeria to pay the huge rights fees demanded by CAF agents, resulted in the non-telecast of the Africa Cup of Nations matches on local television stations, prompting Nigerians to watch the matches on pay per view television.

78 Killed in Mali Conflict

At least 78 people have been killed in a heavy fight, in a remote part of northern Mali including 13 soldiers and 65 Islamist insurgents.

Chadian military officials say Friday’s clash occurred in the Ifoghas Mountains, where many militants are believed to be hiding.

The Islamist rebels are believed to have retreated to the Ifoghas Mountains in the Kidal region near the border with Algeria after they were forced out from strategic towns in the north of the country.

Last month France led an operation to help oust Islamists who seized the vast northern region of Mali in 2012.

Thousands of soldiers from African countries have also been deployed in Mali to help put the situation under control.

Gunbattle Rocks Gao After Rebels Surprise French, Malians

Islamist insurgents launched a surprise raid in the heart of the Malian town of Gao on Sunday, battling French and local troops in a blow to efforts to secure Mali’s recaptured north.

Local residents hid in their homes or crouched behind walls as the crackle of gunfire from running street battles resounded through the sandy streets and mud-brick houses of the ancient Niger River town, retaken from Islamist rebels last month by a French-led offensive.

French helicopters clattered overhead and fired on al Qaeda-allied rebels armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades who had infiltrated the central market area and holed up in a police station, Malian and French officers said.

The fighting inside Gao was certain to raise fears that pockets of determined Islamists who have escaped the lightning four-week-old French intervention in Mali will strike back with guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings.

After driving the bulk of the insurgents from major northern towns such as Timbuktu and Gao, French forces are trying to search out their bases in the remote and rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, far up in the northeast.

But with Mali’s weak army unable to secure recaptured zones, and the deployment of a larger African security force slowed by delays and kit shortages, vast areas to the rear of the French forward lines now look vulnerable to guerrilla activity.

“They infiltrated the town via the river. We think there were about 10 of them. They were identified by the population and they went into the police station,” said General Bernard Barrera, commander of French ground operations in Mali.

He told reporters in Gao that French helicopters had intervened to help Malian troops pinned down by the rebels, who threw grenades from rooftops.

Malian gendarme Colonel Saliou Maiga told Reuters the insurgents intended to carry out suicide attacks in the town.

SUICIDE BOMBERS

No casualty toll was immediately available. But a Reuters reporter in Gao saw one body crumpled over a motorcycle. Malian soldiers said some of the raiders may have come on motorbikes.

The gunfire in Gao erupted hours after French and Malian forces reinforced a checkpoint on the northern outskirts that had been attacked for the second time in two days by a suicide bomber.

Abdoul Abdoulaye Sidibe, a Malian parliamentarian from Gao, said the rebel infiltrators were from the MUJWA group that had held the town until French forces liberated it late last month.

MUJWA is a splinter faction of al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM which, in loose alliance with the home-grown Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine, held Mali’s main northern urban areas for 10 months until the French offensive drove them out.

Late on Saturday, an army checkpoint in Gao’s northern outskirts came under attack by a group of Islamist rebels who fired from a road and bridge that lead north through the desert scrub by the Niger River to Bourem, 80 km (50 miles) away.

“Our soldiers came under heavy gunfire from jihadists from the bridge … At the same time, another one flanked round and jumped over the wall. He was able to set off his suicide belt,” Malian Captain Sidiki Diarra told reporters.

The bomber died and one Malian soldier was lightly wounded, he added. In Friday’s motorbike suicide bomber attack, a Malian soldier was also injured.

Diarra described Saturday’s bomber as a bearded Arab.

Since Gao and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Timbuktu were retaken last month, several Malian soldiers have been killed in landmine explosions on a main road leading north.

French and Malian officers say pockets of rebels are still in the bush and desert between major towns and pose a threat of hit-and-run guerrilla raids and bombings.

“We are in a dangerous zone… we can’t be everywhere,” a French officer told reporters, asking not to be named.

One local resident reported seeing a group of 10 armed Islamist fighters at Batel, just 10 km (6 miles) from Gao.

OPERATIONS IN NORTHEAST

The French, who have around 4,000 troops in Mali, are now focusing their offensive operations several hundred kilometers (miles) north of Gao in a hunt for the Islamist insurgents.

On Friday, French special forces paratroopers seized the airstrip and town of Tessalit, near the Algerian border.

From here, the French, aided by around 1,000 Chadian troops in the northeast Kidal region, are expected to conduct combat patrols into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

The remaining Islamists are believed to have hideouts and supply depots in a rugged, sun-blasted range of rocky gullies and caves, and are also thought to be holding at least seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.

The U.S. and European governments back the French-led operation as a defense against Islamist jihadists threatening wider attacks, but rule out sending their own combat troops.

To accompany the military offensive, France and its allies are urging Mali authorities to open a national reconciliation dialogue that addresses the pro-autonomy grievances of northern communities like the Tuaregs, and to hold democratic elections.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore, appointed after a military coup last year that plunged the West African state into chaos and led to the Islamist occupation of the north, has said he intends to hold elections by July 31.

But he faces splits within the divided Malian army, where rival units are still at loggerheads.

 

Mali Islamists Flee To Sudan’s Darfur Region

Islamist fighters from Mali have reached Sudan’s western Darfur region after fleeing French air strikes and advancing ground troops, a Sudanese rebel group said on Friday.

French troops have pushed militants out of cities and into desert and mountain hideouts in a four-week operation to prevent Mali becoming a base for attacks in Africa and Europe.

“We have confirmed that some Mali fighters are in Darfur,” said Gibreel Adam, spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group in Darfur.

Western governments fear that al Qaeda-linked fighters will cross African borders as they seek refuge.

Law and order has collapsed in large parts of Darfur since mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government in 2003.

Adam said an unknown number of fighters from Mali had entered Darfur through Sudan’s remote southwestern border with the Central African Republic.

“They are in Um Dafuq and other areas in the north and south of western Darfur,” he said.

The Sudanese foreign ministry and army could not be reached for comment.

Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based Darfuri station, said local sources had reported the arrival of Mali fighters in North Darfur.

The fighters, distinguished by their look and language, had arrived with armed Land Cruisers in Kutum and Adumur in North Darfur, the station said.

France has deployed nearly 4,000 ground troops as well as warplanes and armored vehicles in Operation Serval which has broken the Islamist militants’ 10-month grip on northern towns.

It is now due to hand over to a U.N.-backed African force.

UNESCO Says Millions Needed To Restore Mali Heritage

African officials and academics will meet in Paris this month to discuss how to repair and safeguard mausoleums and ancient manuscripts in Mali that were destroyed by Islamist rebels, U.N. cultural agency UNESCO said.

UNESCO believes most of some 300,000 centuries-old texts, ranging from scholarly treatises to old commercial invoices, are safe, although around 2,000 manuscripts may have been lost at the ransacked Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu.

Written in ornate calligraphy, the brittle texts represent a compendium of human knowledge on everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics, which academics say prove Africa had a written history at least as old as the European Renaissance.

Equipment installed at a library in Timbuktu to start digitizing them was smashed by the rebels, and computers holding data were burned, as they fled the ancient city last month ahead of its liberation by French forces, said UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin.

The Paris-based agency will chair the February 18 meeting, send experts to Mali to assess the damage and try to raise funding to scan and preserve surviving texts, its director-general Irina Bokova said on Friday.

The damage to Mali’s tangible heritage wrought by the rebels is likely to be around $4-5 million, but the cost of rebuilding mausoleums and digitizing tens of thousands of manuscripts was harder to estimate, she told a news conference.

“We will send a mission of experts to assess the damage once security conditions allow so we can make an estimate of what we need,” said Bokova, who visited Timbuktu, a UNESCO world heritage site, with French President Francois Hollande last week.

“We have the basis of a plan of action and we will expand on this at a round table on the 18th,” she said.

Bandarin said 11 mausoleums and tombs had been destroyed during the rebel occupation of northern Mali, but UNESCO planned to rebuild them using photographs and local experts.

He said Mali’s ancient artefacts also needed protection from international trafficking gangs, who run a trade worth some $6-8 billion a year and have taken advantage of recent chaos in countries like Libya to loot items.

Staff at a museum in Bamako now storing some of the Malian manuscripts for safekeeping will attend the February 18 meeting and receive training in keeping the texts safe.

“The lesson from this is clear. Cultural artefacts are exposed to crises and need to be protected,” Bandarin said.

 

President’s Son Leads Chadians Against Islamists In Mali

Around 1,000 troops from Chad led by the president’s son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, advanced towards the mountains of northeast Mali on Thursday to join French search-and-destroy operations hunting Islamist jihadists.

A column of 100 Chadian armored vehicles, jeeps and supply trucks rolled out of Kidal, the Saharan town 1,200 km (750 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako. From Kidal, French and Chadian forces backed by French warplanes are striking against Islamist rebel hideouts in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range straddling the border with Algeria.

President Idriss Deby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, commanded the Chadian column. He told Reuters its mission was to “fight terrorism, and eradicate it from the region”, a reference to the Al Qaeda-allied fighters in the mountains who are being bombarded almost daily by French aircraft.

More than 2,500 troops from Chad and Niger are assisting 4,000 French soldiers in the second phase of Paris’ four-week-old intervention against Al Qaeda and its allies in Mali. This is supported by Africa, the United States and Europe as a strike against radical jihadists threatening international attacks.

France’s Operation Serval has retaken the main urban areas of Mali’s north, including Timbuktu and Gao, and is now pursuing the retreating jihadists into the remote northeast. Malian troops are moving up behind to secure the recaptured locations.

Malian Defense Minister General Yamoussa Camara told Reuters the Malian army intended to follow the French and Chadians right up to Tessalit close to the Algerian border.

“That is going to take some time. The enemy’s offensive has been broken, they’ve lost a lot of equipment, but there are pockets of resistance scattered across the country,” he said.

This echoed statements by French leaders who say the Islamists have suffered “hundreds” of casualties but warn the Mali campaign is not yet over. France has said it wants to start pulling troops out of its former colony in March and would like to see a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed there by April.

Pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA fighters, whose revolt last year defeated Mali’s army and seized the north before being hijacked by Islamist radicals, have said they are controlling Kidal and other northeast towns abandoned by the fleeing Islamist rebels.

Tuareg desert nomads, offering local knowledge as guides, have said they will help the French and Chadians hunt down the al Qaeda-allied insurgents in the desert and mountains.

But this has created a potentially sensitive situation as Mali’s government and army insist on restoring Bamako’s sovereignty over every corner of Mali, including the vast and empty desert zone which the Tuaregs claim as their homeland.

“It is out of the question that we would abandon any place to the MNLA,” Defence Minister Camara said.

Nigeria Confirms Deployment Of 500 Officers To Mali

The Defence Headquarters has debunked claims that there are only 138 soldiers of Nigerian origin in the on-going peace enforcement operation by the Africa-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA).

The Director of Defence Information, Colonel Muhammed Yerima, in a statement on Thursday, affirmed that there are currently 500 officers and men of the Nigerian armed forces deployed to the AFISMA operation in Mali.

According to him “currently, there is company strength of 138 men (all ranks) stationed in the city of Banamba, Mali.”

He further explained that “while the AFISMA headquarters in Bamako is manned by 17 Nigerian personnel, 24 personnel are also stationed at the transit camp”, adding that a signal squadron of 61 personnel have also been deployed.

Colonel Yermia also stated that officers of the Nigerian Air Force which is stationed in Niamey, Niger Republic, has a total strength of 300 personnel.

He assured Nigerians that the remaining troops and equipment will be deployed to Mali in due course and that a contingent of 140 Nigeria police personnel who are already on standby, are also expected to be deployed soon.

 

Nigeria Vs Mali To Kick-off Semi-final Games

After sorting the boys from the men at the on-going Afcon 2013 in South Africa, the stage is now set for the rest four teams namely Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana to vie for the two top spots in the finals of the African tournament come the 10th of February in an all open game today as Nigeria and Mali will be locking horns as the first semi-final game of the day to determine the first qualifier for the finals.

Looking at these four teams, Nigeria has made a surprise run to the semi-final, despite the lack of big-game experience possessed by most of their defenders, both for club and country.

The Super Eagles players have been exceptionally brilliant especially the duo of John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses both plying their trades for Chelsea, sealing the mouths of pundits as the Super Eagles warded off pressure from their back line.

Ghana is the biggest remaining side with the largest stable of talent and best recent results in international play, but there’s considerable talent on all four remaining teams, and none should be counted out.

In the late game, Ghana faces off against Burkina Faso, who is finally reaching their potential. They’ve failed to turn their players’ athleticism and extensive Ligue 1 experience into good showings at the Africa Cup of Nations until this edition of the tournament, where they have been arguably the most consistent of the four remaining teams.

Super Eagles Not Underrating Mali — Keshi

Coach Stephen Keshi has hailed the Malian team and their driving force ahead of Wednesday’s clash in the semi-finals of the Afcon 2013 between the Super Eagles and the Malian team, saying the civil war going on in their country is responsible for the fighting spirit the team has shown.

In a game that will decide who plays the final of the African Cup of Nations in Durban tomorrow, the two West African team will be going into the game with so much determination, as the Super Eagles has been touted the favourites by pundits after a stunning finish against earlier favourites Ivory Coast who were shown the way out of the competition by a now advanced Super Eagles team with a 2-1 victory in the quaterfinals on Sunday, but the Super eagles Coach is playing the favourites tag thing down, claiming he does not know about his team being the favourites for the Afcon 2013 but he is presently concerned with the team delivering the desired results .

“I don’t know anything about being the favourites to win the game or to win the championship. All we know is that we’re playing a very good side of Mali.

He said further he is wary of the Malian team for he has been with most of the players that made the Malian squad as the Afcon 2013 and he sure knows what damage these player are capable of doing to an opponent.

“I know at least 85 per cent of them played for me for two years. I know it’s not going to be easy; we’re here to play it game-by-game until the end of the tournament.

He however stated that from the kick-off whistle the Super Eagles are going headlong so as to get the desired results as no team can be underrated so playing Mali has to be with all seriousness

“So that’s how we’re going to approach it, the same way as we approached the previous games, the seriousness we’re going to put in. we respect every team that is here. “There is no team we will take for granted or for a joke. Our concentration will once again have to be at its peak.”

The coach condemned the crisis going on in Mali saying the Malians are lovely people and the country a great one and it is the crisis rocking the country that’s spurring the players on.

“It’s a shame what’s going on in Mali, a great country with wonderful people,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a place I love. There’s no doubt this group of players is thinking about that and that’s where they’re getting their power, motivation force and spirit from.”

Keshi, a former coach of the Malian team and also that of Togo before he attained the position of the head coach of the super eagles where he was a former player 19 years ago and he also lifted the Afcon trophy as a captain in Tunisia 1994.

Jonathan To Meet British PM and French President

The Presidency has announced that President Goodluck Jonathan will leave Abuja, Tuesday night for London and Paris to discuss with the British Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron and the President of France, Mr. Francois Hollande on matters of vital interest to the three countries.

A statement signed by the President aide on Media, Dr Reuben Abati stated that “the President’s talks with the British Prime Minister in London are expected to focus on the expansion of trade and economic relations between Nigeria and Britain as well as the enhancement of cooperation between both countries on the war against terrorism.”

“In Paris, President Jonathan will confer with President Hollande and French Government officials on the on-going deployment of Nigerian and ECOWAS troops to Mali to support the current military action against insurgents and terrorists in Northern Mali” the statement further adds.

Meanwhile, President Jonathan is expected to stop-over in Cairo, the Egyptian capital on his way to London, to participate in the conference of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) scheduled to open there on Wednesday.

The President is also scheduled to attend the launching of the Olusegun Obasanjo Foundation in London on Friday.

He will be accompanied by the First Lady and relevant government officials.

He is due back in Abuja, next week Monday, the statement concludes.