DIABALY, Mali: Mali’s army chief said his French-backed forces could reclaim the northern towns of Gao and fabled Timbuktu from Islamists in a month, as more offers of aid poured in for the offensive.
French planes bombed a major base of the Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) near Timbuktu, a defence ministry official said on Tuesday, on condition of anonymity, as local sources said a mansion belonging to Libyan former strongman Moamer Kadhafi was destroyed.
“In the course of the last French bombings, several jihadists died and the residence of Kadhafi which had become the headquarters of the Islamists was destroyed,” a Malian security source said, adding there were no civilian deaths.
A local resident said: “Three or four other areas housing Islamists were also bombed,” adding that three houses “used by drug-traffickers were targeted.”
International moves to aid the operations revved up with the US military airlifting French troops and equipment from France into Mali.
“We expect the mission to last for the next several days,” an AFRICOM spokesman, Chuck Prichard, told AFP in Germany. “As of yet we’ve had two flights that have landed and we anticipate more in the coming days.”
Italy said it will send three planes to Mali to help support French and Malian troops for a two- to three-month logistical mission. They include two C-130 transport planes and a Boeing 767.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon hailed France’s “courageous” intervention but expressed fears over the safety of humanitarian workers and UN employees on the ground.
He said a UN-backed proposed African force in Mali needs “critical logistical support” to help it take over from French force
Ivory Coast became the latest African nation to pledge troops, saying it would deploy 500 soldiers for the African force.
Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and the United Arab Emirates are also providing transport planes or helicopters required to help move the African and French troops around Mali’s vast expanses.
France began its military operation on January 11 and has said it could deploy upwards of 2,500 troops which would eventually hand over control to the African force.
General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said the French-backed army was forging ahead for “the total liberation of northern Mali,” in an interview with French radio station RFI, a day after it rolled into two central towns held by Islamists.
“If the support remains consistent, it won’t take more than a month to free Gao and Timbuktu,” he said, referring to two of three main cities along with Kidal, in the vast, semi-arid north which has been occupied for 10 months.
The Al Qaeda-linked Islamists have subjected these towns to strict sharia, whipping smokers and drinkers, banning music, forcing women to wear veils and long robes, amputating the limbs of thieves and stoning adulterers to death.
A fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu was for centuries a key centre of Islamic learning and has become a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.
Today it is a battlefield, overrun by Islamist militants who have been razing its world-heritage religious sites in a destructive rampage that the UN cultural agency has deplored as “tragic”.
Dembele said troops from Niger and Chad were expected to come through Niger, which borders Mali on the east, and head to Gao, a key Islamist stronghold which has been pounded by French airstrikes.
A major boost to the regional force is a pledge by Mali’s neighbour Chad to deploy 2,000 soldiers there, which would bring the number of African soldiers to around 6,000.
The Chadian troops are battle-hardened, having quelled rebellions at home and in nearby countries such as the Central African Republic.
Egypt on Monday broke ranks with the international community saying the French-led intervention would fuel regional conflict but the head of Mali’s chief Muslim group came out in strong support of the drive.
Mahmoud Dicko said that was “not an aggression against Islam,” adding: “It was France that came to the rescue of a people in distress who had been abandoned by the Muslim countries.”
France swept to Mali’s aid 10 months after it lost over half its territory to Islamists, amid rising fears that the vast northern half of the country could become a new Afghanistan-like haven for Al-Qaeda.