French airstrikes hit northern Mali
Convoys delivering aid to freed towns
GOSSI, Mali – French troops launched airstrikes on Islamic militant training camps and arms depots around Kidal and Tessalit in Mali’s far north, defense officials said Sunday, as the first supply convoy of food, fuel and parts to eastern Mali headed across the country.
French planes pounded extremist training camps as well as arms and fuel depots from Saturday night into the early hours of Sunday, according to French army Col. Thierry Burkhard.
“It was an important aerial operation to the north of the town Kidal and in the Tessalit region where we targeted logistical depots and Islamist training camps … some 20 sites,” said Burkhard. He said there were 30 planes used in the operation including Mirage and Rafale jets.
The French intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 to stem the advance of the al-Qaida-linked fighters. Though they succeeded in ousting the rebels from the three main northern cities they occupied, including the fabled city of Timbuktu, Sunday’s aerial operation highlights that the French still see militants in the extreme northern area near the border with Algeria a threat.
“Here, there’s still various Islamist groups like the MUJAO, and Ansar Dine,” he said. The Islamic extremist group the Movement for Unity and Oneness of the Jihad, is known as MUJAO.
As the French bombarded in the north, they also neared the eastern town of Gao with its first supply convoy since the conflict began.
Crowds along the roads heading northeast from Sevare toward Gao on Sunday thronged the roads screaming “Vive la France!” and old men in long flowing robes on bicycles held onto the handlebars with one hand to wave as soldiers passed by in a 62-vehicle convoy spanning 3 miles.
The logistics convoy carrying food, fuel and spare parts for the French military 808 miles over ground from Bamako to Gao underscores the logistical difficulties facing the mission in Mali.
“The distances are very long. In Afghanistan we could do it in a day. Now, it’s eight days round trip here,” said Lt. Emmanuel, who gave only his first name in keeping with French military protocol.
The convoy is bringing a 15-day supply, he said.
Still, the successes of the operation were seen alongside the small villages where signs of life were returning to normal, and where there was no visible presence of the Islamic rebels who imposed harsh rule for months.
The approach of the convoy and the use of aerial assaults come three weeks after France unilaterally launched its military intervention – and significantly, just hours after French President Francois Hollande left Mali soil. On Saturday, he visited Timbuktu to a liberator’s welcome. Thousands of people stood elbow-to-elbow behind a perimeter line in downtown Timbuktu, hoisting the homemade French flags they had prepared for Hollande’s arrival to the northern desert city that French troops liberated last week after 10 months of control by al-Qaida-linked groups.
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