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.

Mali rebels declare independence in north

Mali’s desert Tuaregs proclaimed independence for what they call the state of Azawad on Friday after capturing key towns this week in an advance that caught the newly-installed junta off guard.

Malians, who originate from the north, pump their fists in the air during a meeting in Bamako

Nomadic Tuaregs have nurtured the dream of secession since Mali’s own independence from France in 1960 but have little international support for a move which neighbours fear could encourage other separatist movements elsewhere.

This week’s seizure of Mali’s north – a desert zone bigger than France – came with the help of arms and men spilling out of Libya’s conflict. It was backed by Islamists with ties to al Qaeda, triggering fears of the emergence of a new rogue state.

“The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognise, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad,” Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the Tuareg-led MNLA rebel group MNLA said on its www.mnlamov.net home page.

The statement, which listed decades of Tuareg grievances over their treatment by the distant southern capital Bamako, said the group recognised borders with neighbouring states and pledged to create a democratic state based on the principles of the United Nations charter.

It was datelined in the town of Gao, which along with the ancient trading post of Timbuktu and other northern towns fell to rebels in a matter of 72 hours this week as soldiers in Mali’s army either defected to the rebellion or fled.

The advance capitalised on confusion in Bamako after a March 22 coup by mid-ranking officers whose main goal had ironically been to beef up efforts to quash the rebellion.

Mali’s worried neighbours see the handover of power back to civilians as a precondition for moves to help stabilise the country and have imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions aimed at forcing junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo to step down.

On Thursday a team of mediators said they were hopeful Sanogo would soon announce steps that would allow them to drop the sanctions on Africa’s third largest gold miner, which include the closure of borders and the suspension of its account at the regional central bank.

“We are going to do everything so that these sanctions are not only suspended but completely removed. We are getting there,” Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole told Malian television after talks with Sanogo.

“I can assure you that the captain is aware and taking measures. He will soon make some announcements in that direction,” added Bassole, whose country represents the 15-state ECOWAS regional grouping as a mediator in the crisis.

There was no immediate response from the junta.

Separately, ECOWAS military planners prepared the mandate for a force of up to 3,000 soldiers which could be deployed in Mali with the dual aim of securing the return to constitutional order and halting any further rebel advance.

Ivory Coast General Soumaila Bakayoko said after the talks in the Ivorian economic capital Abidjan there was a “clear will” of all ECOWAS states to address the crisis in Mali, but gave no details on troop commitments or a deployment timetable.