France bombs Islamist targets in Mali after Hollande visit
By Marc Bastian, AFPTIMBUKTU, Mali -- France said it carried out major air strikes Sunday near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali's desert north in a lightning French-led offensive, after a whirlwind visit by President Francois Hollande.
February 4, 2013, 12:00 am TWN
An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centers run by Islamist extremists overnight in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, where French troops took the airport Wednesday and have been working to secure the town itself.
Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the town for the first time Saturday as the rest of the country feted Hollande on his tour, a victory lap that came three weeks into a so far successful intervention to oust the Islamists who occupied northern Mali for 10 months.
Hollande, who called the trip the “most important day of my political life,” was greeted by ecstatic crowds in the capital, Bamako, and the fabled city of Timbuktu with cheers of “Vive la France! Long live Hollande!” and given a young camel draped in a French flag.
The French-led forces have met little resistance in their campaign, with officials saying many Islamists have likely fled to the mountainous terrain around Kidal.
After taking Kidal's airport, French troops were delayed by a sandstorm and a delicate situation on the ground, as officials said seven French hostages were believed to be in the area and the rebels splintered, with the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) extending an olive branch by renouncing “extremism and terrorism.”
Kidal residents told AFP they had seen Chadian soldiers shopping at the main market in the sandy northeastern outpost, and observers said Chad now had some 150 troops in the town.
“We don't know what's going to happen. We don't want war here,” said a former town hall employee.
The crisis in Mali erupted a year ago when rebels from the desert nomad Tuareg community, which has long felt marginalized by Bamako, launched a new insurgency demanding independence for the north.