by Marc Bastian
Published — Monday 4 February 2013
Last update 3 February 2013 11:33 pm
TIMBUKTU, Mali: France said it carried out major airstrikes yesterday near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali’s desert north in a lightning French-led offensive, after a whirlwind visit by President Francois Hollande.
An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centers run by extremists overnight in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, where French troops took the airport on Wednesday and have been working to secure the town itself.
Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the town for the first time Saturday as the rest of the country feted Hollande on his tour.
The French-led forces have met little resistance in their campaign, with officials saying many rebels have likely fled to the mountainous terrain around Kidal.
After taking Kidal’s airport, French troops were delayed by a sandstorm and a delicate situation on the ground, as officials said seven French hostages were believed to be in the area and the rebels splintered, with the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad extending an olive branch by renouncing “extremism and terrorism.”
Kidal residents said they had seen Chadian soldiers shopping at the main market in the sandy northeastern outpost, and observers said Chad now had some 150 troops in the town. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t want war here,” said a former town hall employee.
Mali’s Foreign Affairs Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly asked France to stay longer.
“Faced with these hardened fighters whose arsenal must be destroyed, we hope that the mission will continue,” he told French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche the day after Hollande’s jubilant one-day visit.
In Timbuktu, the French leader and interim Malian president Dioncounda Traore toured the city’s 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber, where extremists tore down two ancient saints’ tombs with pickaxes in July, considering them idolatrous.
On Saturday evening, the power came back for several hours, enabling the city to watch the Malian national team defeat hosts South Africa to advance to the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s football championship, their best performance since 1972.
But Saturday’s euphoria over Hollande’s visit and the national team’s win was tainted by reports from rights groups of a grim backlash against light-skinned citizens seen as supporters of the extremists.
With fears of reprisal attacks high, many Arabs and Tuaregs have fled.