Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suggested that ethnic Touaregs in Mali’s northern regions should have some autonomy, while saying France doesn’t want to “dictate” the nation’s constitutional settlement.
While French military forces hold the airport of Kidal in the northeast, sandstorms delayed their operations to take control of the last major rebel-held city, Le Drian said today. Kidal is under the control of Touareg forces who have broken with their former Islamist militant allies and have made peace overtures to the French and Malian government.
“Mali must enter a period of national conciliation open to all political forces that reject terrorism and outright separatism,” Le Drian said on France Inter radio. Touaregs must play “a full role on the recomposition of Mali” while at the same time “Touareg specificity must be recognized,” he said.
Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore said in an interview with Radio France Internationale that he’d negotiate with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the main Touareg rebel group known as the MNLA, provided it drops any claims for a separate homeland.
“Today, the only group I think we can imagine negotiations with is the MNLA, of course under the condition that they renounce any territorial claims,” Traore said. He rejected talks with Islamist groups such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
French forces intervened Jan. 11 when the militants went on the offensive toward the capital, Bamako. In a 48-hour operation starting Jan. 26, they took control of the “bend” in the Niger River from Gao to Mopti through a combination of armored unit drives, paratroop drops and helicopter raids. It was part of a campaign to regain state control of two-thirds of a nation that vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer.
“It was high time to stop terrorist groups in Mali,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters today in Brussels.
They took the historic city of Timbuktu this week, following the capture of Gao. The militants who held those towns have “gone home or are trying to cross borders, which is increasingly difficult because Algeria and the others have closed their borders,” Le Drian said.
Helicopter-borne French special forces seized Kidal airport on the night of Jan. 29, with reinforcements arriving yesterday, military spokesman Thierry Burkhard told reporters today in Paris. Weather conditions are preventing them from entering Kidal, and there has been no fighting in the area, he said.
French forces carried out air raids yesterday in mountains north of Kidal against militant “command centers” and training camps, Burkhard said.
The airport at Timbuktu is back in service, after French engineers cleared the area of obstacles left by the militants, he said.
Four Malian soldiers died and five were wounded yesterday when their vehicle hit a landmine near the town of Gossi, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) southwest of Gao, army spokesman Modibo Traore said today by phone.
United Nations officials yesterday said that peacekeepers may be deployed after French troops leave to ensure that Islamist militants don’t seek to reclaim the regions they lost.
The UN Security Council in New York will discuss in the coming days whether to send as many as 5,000 troops to protect civilians and keep the land-locked West African country stable before peace talks and an election, according to two officials familiar with the discussions of the operations. They asked to not be named as the plans are preliminary.
Mali’s year of crisis led to a 1.5 percent contraction of its $10.6 billion economy in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. Growth is forecast at 4.5 percent in 2013, partly because gold mining hasn’t been affected by the conflict, the IMF said on Jan. 28. Companies including AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. are among the companies operating in the government-controlled south.
An alliance of Touareg and Islamist groups seized northern Mali after a coup in Bamako last March. The Islamists then forced out the secular MNLA.
While Le Drian said French operational troops won’t stay long in Mali, he gave no date and wouldn’t discuss military plans. The country isn’t fully secure, he said. The operations have cost France 50 million euros ($67 million) so far, mostly through logistics and transportation costs, he said.
In his interview, Traore said he thought it would take another month to be in full control of the country.
About 2,900 African troops are already in Mali as part of an African mission to secure the north of the country. What remains to be decided is whether African soldiers on the ground will fold into the UN peacekeeping force, as they did previously in Ivory Coast and Sudan’s western region of Darfur, or if the operation will take a different form, the UN officials said.
An estimated 380,000 people have fled northern Mali since the start of the conflict last year, according to a Jan. 29 statement from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. That includes refugees into neighboring countries including Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, as well as people displaced inside Mali, the UNHCR said.
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