French Foreign Legion soldiers, backed by increasing US logistical support, took mystical Timbuktu on Sunday, scattering the remaining al-Qaida backed rebels seeking to create a new Afghanistan in the desert nation of Mali.
The city is a veritable warehouse of historic sites, and cultural experts from UNESCO have been bemoaning the destruction of such landmarks by the rebels. Saturday, the French military’s website reported the capture of Gao, the last major town held by the Islamists.
French warplanes bombed the area, and destroyed the home of an Islamist leader, Agency France Press reported. The French defense ministry’s Website said dozens of sorties were launched in the past several days.
“There were air raids on Islamist bases in Kidal,” 940 miles north of the capital of Bamako, a source told AFP, adding that the home of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) chief Iyad Ag Ghaly was destroyed. He is an ex-Malian army soldier.
After a lukewarm endorsement of the French campaign in its former colony, the Obama administration embraced it when al-Qaida rebels in neighboring Algeria took Americans and other foreign nationals hostage at a natural gas facility near the Libyan border. The terrorist group killed at least 37 foreign hostages, and several remained missing, most likely dead, AFP said.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement Saturday that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, US Africa Command will provide the aerial refueling support. “The leaders also discussed plans for the United States to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to support the international effort in Mali,” Little said.
That Mali needed French help should be no surprise. Algeria admitted during the weekend that mistakes had been made in the handling of the terrorist attack. Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said his country would work with foreign partners to make sure all options are available.
The French advance is creating more refugees as thousands flee the fighting, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Before taking Gao, the French force took Hombori on Friday, where a French national was taken hostage late last year, local people told allafrica.com. The terrorists offered to negotiate his release as the French advanced. The French have deployed 2,700 personnel including French Foreign Legion soldiers in Mali. African nations have pledged to send several thousand soldiers to reinforce the French, but have encountered problems getting their forces to the area.
The Islamist rebels are made up of several groups, although apparently a force seeking an independent homeland for Tuaregs split off after the rebels were accused of trying to impose Sharia law in the area.
The rebels also were denounced by the United Nations and other groups for destroying historical sites in Timbuktu, a town whose name has become a synonym for a remote location. It was a stopping point for centuries for caravans that had crossed the Sahara desert or were heading out to the Middle East.
“The great underwater metropolis of Atlantis. The lost city of El Dorado. The mystical valley of Shangri-La. The sand swept city of Timbuktu.” While the first three sites are only fantasies, Timbuktu is a very real, and very important, historical site.
“It is also a historical site that is in great danger, as radical Islamists, known as Ansar Dine, have taken over the small city in Mali, threatening destruction to monuments, religious sites, and priceless documents,” NPR reported.
The rebels have been accused of numerous human rights violations, including using child soldiers. The Malian army has been accused of killing anyone suspected of ties to the rebels. Boubacar Diallo, a local political leader in Konna, questioned the bona fides of the Muslim rebels. He told the New York Times: “They say they are Muslims, but I don’t know any Muslim who does not pray.”
Anti-war.com reported “US African Command chief Gen. Carter Ham today conceded, in the rise of growing evidence of massive summary executions in Mali, that the US ‘failed’ in its training of Mali’s military by skipping ethics.”