Security Situation in Mali (28 January 2013)January 28, 2013 in Mali, Region Specific Guidance
Over the past 48 hours, French-led troops in Mali have managed to take over the key town of Gao and the airport of Timbuktu from Islamist rebels. By Monday afternoon, French and Malian military sources confirmed that the troops had entered the historic city of Timbuktu, encountering minimal resistance from the militants. However it must be noted that while the towns of Gao and Timbuktu are currently under the control of French troops, travel to these areas continues to be unadvisable as the security situation may change at any moment. There continues to be a high level of terrorism and threat of kidnapping. As such, MS Risk advises against all travel to the region.
The advance into Timbuktu, which lies 1,000 km (600 miles) north of the capital city of Bamako, comes just one day after French and Malian soldiers seized control of another Islamist stronghold, the eastern town of Gao. French and Malian troops, along with soldiers from Chad and Niger, regained control of Gao on Saturday.
By Sunday, French paratroopers had swooped in to attempt to block the fleeing militants while on the ground troops, coming in from the south, seized the ancient city’s airport, which up until now had been one of the strongholds of the militant groups who have controlled the northern region of the country for the past ten months. Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French army spokesman, confirmed that in less than 48 hours, the troops, backed by helicopters, had seized control of the Niger Loop, which is the area located alongside the curve of the Niger River that flows between Gao and Timbuktu. On the ground sources have also confirmed that the ground force units and paratroopers were dispatched to surround the city of Timbuktu in an attempt to cautiously enter the city.
On Monday afternoon, the French military confirmed that the troops had moved into Timbuktu after blocking all the roads surrounding the city. It was also confirmed that “substantial airpower” had been used in order to support the 1,000 French and 200 Malian forces in their offensive against the rebels in Timbuktu. A Malian army colonel has indicated that “the Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the city of Timbuktu.” However reports have already emerged that while the town remains to be under the control of the allies, a severe amount of damage was caused to some of the historic sites located throughout this ancient town. Mali’s culture ministry has confirmed that prior to escaping the town, the militants burnt the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts from Greece and the ancient Muslim world. Reports have also indicated that Islamists have been fleeing from Timbuktu towards the city of Kidal, which is located more than 500km (300 miles) to the northeast.
Gao is the largest of the six towns which have been seized by French and Malian troops since France launched its military intervention on 11 January. The largest town yet to be recaptured is Kidal, which is located close to the Algerian border. It was also the first town that was seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamist extremists last year.
It is currently believed that once Timbuktu is secured, French-led troops will focus on retaking Kidal. Preparations for this final takeover have already been launched as Malian officials have confirmed that Kidal, which is the home of the head of Ansar Dine, was bombed overnight by French forces. Once Kidal is taken, the first phase of the French operation will be over, while the second phase, which will strictly focus on tracking down the militants in their desert hideouts, will commence. This phase, however, will likely prove to be a more complex task then the first as, according to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the militants have adopted a “strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north.”
On Sunday, France also confirmed that it has now deployed 2,900 troops to Mali, with another 1,000 troops supporting the operation elsewhere, and that there currently are 2,700 African soldiers on the ground in Mali and in Niger. However French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has appealed for more aid for the ongoing efforts in Mali.