President Obama announced Feb. 22 that about 100 US troops have been mobilized to Niger to help set up a new base for supposedly unarmed Predator drones to conduct surveillance in the region. The new drone base is to be located for now in the capital, Niamey. The only permanent US base in Africa is in Djibouti, but Niamey may now constitute a second. (NYT, Feb. 22) Also Feb. 22, Chad announced that 13 of its soldiers and 65 Islamist rebels were killed in a fierce battle in the mountain region of Adrar des Ifoghas, on Mali's border with Algeria. In other fighting that day, at Tessalit, on the edge of the mountains, two vehicles carrying civilians and members of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group exploded, killing three and wounding several others. (VOA, Feb. 22) A second car bomb attack in Khalil, on the Algerian border, left five MNLA fighters dead. (Reuters, France24, Feb. 22)
Britain's The Telegraph on Feb. 13 reports on a document reportedly found by their reporter in the ruins of a Gendarmerie Nationale barracks outside Timbuktu that had been used by the jihadists and then destroyed in a French air-strike. The document, purportedly the notes from a March 18, 2012 leadership meeting of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), chaired by AQIM "prince" Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud, is said to lay bare AQIM's plan to consolidate control of northern Mali, stating: "We had to think of the necessity to draw a plan to command and control the jihad activities there at this critical moment and target all efforts to achieve the required goals." The supposed document is portrayed as especially expressing concerns over Ansar Dine, the faction that controlled Timbuktu, as too independent.
Tension remains high in Gao after a pitched battle over the weekend as French troops beat back an attempt by MUJAO fighters to retake the remote northern Malian city. Jihadist fighters succeeded succeeded in taking a cluster of buildings in the center of town, including the former administrative building that had been used by MUJAO "Islamic police." After the builging was destroyed in a French helicopter assault, fighting ensued for hours over the ruins. French President Francois Hollande said his goal is that "not one space of Mali's territory be under the control of terrorists." A death toll could not immediately be established, but Col. Mamadou Sanake of the Malian army said, "Many Islamists were killed."
For days we have been wondering about the fate of Kidal, the last town in northern Mali that remains under rebel control. Unless you are paying close attention, you would not know that the rebels in Kidal are not jihadists—they are secular Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who took the town from the local jihadist faction, Ansar Dine, at the same time that combined French and Malian forces were driving the jihadists from Timbuktu and Gao last month. French-led forces reportedly captured Kidal's airport last week but have held back on entering the town itself—an implicit acknowledgement of the sensitive situation, a desire to avoid opening a new insurgency with the MNLA but also to stop short of allowing them a zone of control. Now the French military says it is 1,800 soldiers from Chad that have entered Kidal. An astute choice.
French warplanes on Feb. 2 carried out air-strikes in the remaining pocket of Mali's far north still under rebel control—but exactly which rebels remains unclear. The air-strikes apparently targeted rebel bases in Tessalit—a mountainous area near the Algerian border—and outside Kidal, the last major town still in rebel hands. (See map.) French forces claim to have captured Kidal's airport on Jan. 30, as prelude to taking the town, following the pattern in Timbuktu days earlier. But one day before that, the secular Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) claimed to have seized Kidal from jihadist forces. The MNLA have portrayed their advance into Kidal as part of a coordinated campaign against the "terrorists"; however, the fate of Kidal could be the test of whether there is any place for Tuareg autonomy in the new order.
French President François Hollande made what the New York Times called a "triumphant" visit to Timbuktu Feb. 2, "receiving a rapturous welcome from thousands of people who gathered in a dusty square next to a 14th century mosque to dance, play drums and chant, 'Vive la France!' The muezzin of the mosque, whose singing calls residents to pray five times a day, wore a scarf in the colors of the French flag around his neck, as he shouted, 'Vive Hollande!'" There is no point pretending this didn't happen, or that the jubilation is not authentic. But the Times account does not mention the sinister underside to northern Mali's liberaiton.
The US military is preparing to establish a drone base in "northwest Africa"—likely be located in Niger along the eastern border of Mali, where French forces are currently waging a campaign against jihadist rebels, anonymous officials told the New York Times Jan. 28. The base would supposedly facilitate intelligence gathering by unarmed surveillance drones on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and related militant networks. If the plan is approved, up to 300 US military personnel and contractors could be sent to staff the base.
International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Jan. 28 warned the Malian government over reports of human rights abuses by Malian forces. In the statement, Bensouda urged Malian authorities to put an immediate stop to the alleged abuses and to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Bensouda announced last week that her office has launched an investigation into possible war crimes committed in Mali. Bensouda said, "I remind all parties to the on-going conflict in Mali that my Office has jurisdiction over all serious crimes committed within the territory of Mali, from January 2012 onwards. All those alleged to be responsible for serious crimes in Mali must be held accountable."