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Wed Oct 01 12:32:59 SAST 2014

Soldiers comb Timbuktu

Reuters, Sapa | 30 January, 2013 00:00
A French soldier sits atop an armoured vehicle outside Markala. Islamist rebels in Mali abandoned the central town of Diabaly on Friday after fleeing a French air strike, military sources said, while West African troops arrived in Bamako to take on the insurgents in Mali's north.
Image by: JOE PENNEY / REUTERS

French-backed Malian troops searched house to house in Gao and Timbuktu yesterday, uncovering arms and explosives abandoned by Islamist fighters.

France said it would look to hand over longer-term security operations to African troops.

French and Malian troops retook the two Saharan towns virtually unopposed at the weekend after an 18-day French-led offensive that has pushed back the al Qaeda-allied militants into hide-outs in the deserts and mountains.

Malian government soldiers combed the towns' neighbourhoods of dusty alleys and mud-brick homes. In Gao, they arrested at least five suspected Islamist rebels and sympathisers, turned over by local people, and uncovered caches of weapons and counterfeit money.

Timbuktu residents reported some looting of shops owned by Arabs and Tuaregs suspected of having helped the Islamists, who had occupied the world-famous seat of Islamic learning, a Unesco World Heritage Site, since last year.

Fleeing fighters torched a Timbuktu library holding priceless ancient manuscripts, damaging many.

Malian army sources said pockets of armed Islamists, on foot to avoid French air strikes, were still hiding in the savannah and deserts around Gao and Timbuktu and near main roads leading to them, parts of which were still unsafe.

Mali has been in political limbo since a March 2012 coup triggered the rebel takeover of the north.

France, which has sent about 3000 troops to Mali at the request of its government, says it wants to pass longer-term security operations there to a larger UN-backed African force, known as Afisma, being deployed in the country.

"We will stay as long as necessary," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. "We want to make sure there will be a good handover between France and Afisma. There is no question of us getting stuck in the mud."

Also in Addis Ababa, Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore announced his government would aim to organise "credible" elections for July 31, a demand made by major western backers of the anti-rebel operation.

Fabius was attending a meeting of international donors who were asked to foot the bill for the African intervention force for Mali. Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara said the force would exceed 8000 troops and cost nearly $1-billion.

The US and European governments are backing the French and African military operation against the Islamist rebels with logistical, airlift and intelligence support but are not sending combat troops.

They consider the intervention vital to root out a hotbed of al-Qaeda-allied insurgency in West Africa.

Britain boosted an offer of aid to help France's effort in Mali and pledged troops to assist other African governments in the region.

The US extended deployment of surveillance drones that could track down rebel bases and columns in the Sahara desert. Mali's neighbour Niger yesterday gave permission for US drones to fly from its territory.

The bulk of the planned African intervention force for Mali - to be comprised mostly of West African troops - is still struggling to get into the country, hampered by shortages of kit and supplies and lack of airlift capacity to fly the troops in. About 2000 are already on the ground.

South Africa had donated more than R90-million to curb violence in Mali, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said yesterday.

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Wed Oct 01 12:32:59 SAST 2014 ::