Mali conflict: Sandstorm 'blocks' French troops advance

French troops in northern Mali. Photo: 30 January 2013
Image caption France says it wants its troops to leave Mali "quickly"

France says a sandstorm is preventing its forces from entering the last major town in northern Mali in their offensive against Islamist militants.

The troops remained "blocked" at the airport in Kidal, the French defence minister said.

His statement appeared to conflict with earlier reports that French troops were in the town and militants had left.

French and Malian forces have been sweeping north, earlier taking Gao and Timbuktu with almost no resistance.

The retreating Islamist militants have been accused of destroying ancient manuscripts held in Timbuktu, but a senior official now says that most of the documents are safe.

France - the former colonial power in Mali - launched a military operation this month after militants appeared to be threatening the south.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday that France intended to leave Mali "quickly", and it was up to African countries to take over.

Several hundred soldiers from West African countries - including Niger and Chad - are already in Mali to help the operation against the militants.

Conflicting reports

Speaking before a parliamentary committee in Paris, Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that the French forces had seized Kidal's airport, according to the AFP news agency.

But the minister said that further progress had been temporarily halted by a sandstorm in the area, about 1,500km (930 miles) north-east of the capital Bamako.

His comments contradicted a report earlier on Wednesday by French army spokesman Col Thierry Burkhard, who said that "French elements were deployed overnight in Kidal".

In addition, Haminy Maiga, 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.

Kidal 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 said its leader was in talks with the French military.

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".

Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of targeting ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilians.

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.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFrench Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says rebel groups could still strike in Mali or elsewhere

Paris 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 airport 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 Islamists were accused of destroying the 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 30,000 manuscripts said to be in the region were safe.

Donor pledges

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.

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.

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