Published on Jan 27, 2013 by Channel4News
Thousands of people flocked the streets of Gao cheering Malian troops and thanking the French forces who led the advance. Our International Editor Lindsey Hilsum is the first British journalist in Gao, and witnessed the jubilation and the casualties.
“When the Foreign Legion leads, success follows and the Caliphate is beaten back.”
French forces say they have entered Kidal in the north of Mali, the last major town they have yet to secure in their drive against Islamist militants.
French forces now control Kidal airport after a number of aircraft, including helicopters, landed there overnight.
Islamist militants were reported to have already left the town and it was unclear who was in charge.
French and Malian forces have been sweeping north, earlier taking Gao and Timbuktu with almost no resistance.
France – the former colonial power in Mali – launched a military operation this month after Islamist militants appeared to be threatening the south.
French army spokesman Col Thierry Burkhard confirmed that “French elements were deployed overnight in Kidal”.
Haminy Maiga, the interim president of the Kidal regional assembly, told the Associated Press news agency: “The French arrived at 9:30pm [Tuesday] aboard four planes. Afterwards they took the airport and then entered the town and there was no combat.
“The French are patrolling the town and two helicopters are patrolling overhead,” he said.
Kidal, 1,500km (930 miles) north-east of the capital Bamako, was until recently under the control of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which has strong ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Islamist militants had taken advantage of a military coup in March last year to impose Sharia in a number of cities in the north.
However, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently split from Ansar Dine, says it is now in charge in Kidal.
The IMA has said it rejects “extremism and terrorism” and wants a peaceful solution.
An IMA spokesman confirmed the French arrival in Kidal and said that its leader was in talks with them.
However, another rebel group, the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), is also influential in the area. It is ethnically driven, fighting mostly for the rights of Mali’s minority Tuareg community.
An MNLA spokesman told the BBC its fighters had entered Kidal on Saturday and found no Islamist militants there.
The MNLA has also said it is prepared to work with the French “to eradicate terrorist groups” in the north but that it would not allow the return of the Malian army, which it accused of “crimes against the civilian population”.
Some reports say Ansar Dine leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, and Abou Zeid of AQIM have now moved to the mountainous region north of Kidal.
The BBC’s Thomas Fessy, in Timbuktu, says that taking Kidal will mark the end of the first phase of the French military intervention.
However, he says there will remain the difficult task of chasing the fighters down across the vast desert.
The French foreign ministry on Wednesday urged the Malian government to open discussions with the “legitimate representatives of the people in the north” as well as “non-terrorist armed groups”.
The French arrival at Kidal came only 24 hours after securing Timbuktu with Malian forces.
The troops had to secure the streets after hundreds of people looted shops they said had belonged to militant sympathisers.
The retreating Islamist militants were also accused of destroying ancient manuscripts held in the city.
However on Wednesday, Shamil Jeppie, the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project director at the University of Cape Town, said that more than 90% of the 300,000 manuscripts said to be in the region were safe.
France has been pushing for the swift deployment of an African Union-backed force, the International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma), to take control of Malian towns.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says rebel groups could still strike in Mali or elsewhere
On Tuesday, international donors meeting in Ethiopia pledged $455.53m (£289m) for Afisma and for other projects.
African leaders say the overall budget could be around $950m.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the meeting impressive progress had been made but that this did not mean the danger was over.
Mr Fabius also said credible elections in Mali would be vital to achieving sustainable peace in the country.
Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore said on Tuesday that he wanted to hold “transparent and credible” elections by 31 July.
“There’s no doubt that the French taking control of the Towns is a good thing and will improve the safety of the non Islamist population. I’m still betting that the Enemy is falling back for now and the real fighting will start in the near future.”
The arrival in Kidal on Wednesday comes days after the French-led capture of Gao and Timbuktu in a three-week offensive that Paris now hopes to wind down and hand over to African troops.
“French elements were deployed overnight in Kidal,” French army spokesperson Thierry Burkhard told AFP in Paris.
Several sources reported earlier that French troops had landed at the airport of Kidal.
“We confirm that French aircraft are on the Kidal landing strip and that protection helicopters are in the sky,” said a regional security source.
A senior Tuareg figure in Kidal and a spokesperson for the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad, which recently announced it had taken control of Kidal, also said the French had landed at the airport.
“Our leader is currently talking with them,” he added.
Kidal lies 1 500 kilometres northeast of the capital Bamako and until recently was controlled by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
Last Thursday however, the newly formed group announced it had split from Ansar Dine, that it rejected “extremism and terrorism” and wanted to find a peaceful solution to Mali’s crisis.
Ansar Dine and two other Islamist groups took advantage of the chaos following a military coup in Bamako last March to seize the north, imposing their harsh interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Offenders suffered whippings, amputations and in some cases were executed.
France swept to Mali’s aid on January 11 as the Islamists advanced south towards Bamako, sparking fears that the whole country could become a haven for extremists.
With the recapture of Timbuktu by French-led forces on Monday, Kidal became the last major northern city still outside their control.
Several reports say the main Islamist chiefs, Iyad Ag Ghaly of Ansar Dine and the Algerian Abou Zeid of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), have retreated to the mountains in the Kidal region, which borders Algeria and Niger.
The UN refugee agency reported that food, clean water and fuel were scarce in both Kidal and Tessalit, further north.
“Hundreds of people are reported to have fled Kidal in recent days to villages further north, even closer to the Algerian border,” said the UNHCR.
“Others have crossed into Algeria, despite the border being officially closed.”
Fresh pledges of international support
In Timbuktu on Tuesday, a day after the troops drove in to an ecstatic welcome, hundreds of people looted shops they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians accused of backing the Islamists.
They took everything, from arms and military communications equipment to televisions, food and furniture, before Malian soldiers restored order.
Experts in the city are still trying to assess exactly how many of the city’s priceless ancient manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages were destroyed when fleeing Islamists set fire to the building housing them.
The custodian of the collection said some of the documents had been smuggled to safety before insurgents seized the town 10 months ago, in the chaos that followed the military coup.
At a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa Tuesday, African leaders and international officials pledged more than $455-million for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.
Lack of cash and equipment has hampered deployment of nearly 6 000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (Afisma) which is expected to take over from the French army.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced additional aid of $63-million for African forces and Malian troops in Addis Ababa in the form of logistical support and material.
Air refuelling facilities
And in comments to Le Parisien newspaper published Wednesday, he insisted that France’s troops would leave Mali quickly.
“Freeing Gao and Timbuktu very quickly was part of the plan,” he said.
“Now it’s for the African countries to take over,” he added, echoing comments made by President Francois Hollande on Monday.
So far, just 2 000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger, many of them from Chad, whose contingent is independent from the Afisma force. The bulk of fighting has been borne by some 2 900 French troops.
In Washington, the Pentagon said US planes would help fly African troops into the region. The US has already started supplying air refuelling facilities for French aircraft and has flown in supplies and equipment for the mission.
Britain said it was ready to boost the number of military personnel helping the operation to more than 300, adding around 240 to more than 90 military personnel already supporting the mission in the region. – AFP
In a truly shocking display of Islamophobia, the streets of Gao were full of Malians celebrating the defeat of Islamic Jihadists at the hands of the French. Women went out into the streets unveiled, men smoked, played drums and rode on motorbikes with unfurled flags, celebrating the return of their freedom and the end of Islamic rule.
SÉVARÉ, Mali — Residents of Gao, northern Mali’s largest city, poured out of their homes to celebrate the expulsion of Islamist fighters who had held their town for months, playing the music that had been forbidden under the militants’ harsh interpretation of Islamic rule and dancing in the streets.
“Everyone is in the streets,” a Gao resident, Ibrahim Touré, said in a telephone interview. “It is like a party. There is music. There are drums. It’s freedom.”
When Islamists lose there is freedom. When they win, there is horror as in Egypt, Mali and Tunisia.
And the Islamophobes of Gao are happy to see the end of Islamic rule and to see…
Everywhere we go in Gao, people cheer and clap. They haven’t seen white people in a long time. In fact, the women haven’t seen very much for a long time because the jihadis would not let them wear glasses.
Hamchat Dicko, who has only one eye, told me that she was not allowed to buy a replacement pair. “They didn’t want women to see the world,” she said.
She was among a group of women who pulled us into their sandy compound to chat. Her friend, Malama al-Zouma, a tiny woman in a yellow skirt and blouse, insisted on showing me all her favourite dresses that she had hidden in a pillowcase from the jihadis. Then she proudly put on a blue uniform and badge, which she used to wear in her job as an orderly at the hospital.
All around Gao we can see the damage the jihadis have wrought. They fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Baji nightclub, which is now full of rubble. One of their first acts was to climb the earthen turret of the Catholic cathedral and destroy the cross.
Now I’m watching two young women drive by on a motor bike with a baby. They’ve got a Malian flag at the front, and they’ve pinned ribbons in the Malian green, red and yellow and the French red, white and blue, all over their head dresses.
They’re enjoying the freedom to dress as they please, ride on a motor bike to see their friends, and wear glasses to see the world.
Only Islamophobes want women to have glasses and be able to see the world. Real Muslims want women to be Noglassabis.