North Africa Theater
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."
French-led forces have now apparently taken Timbuktu, a day after seizing its airport in a lightning advance against the jihadist militias that held northern Mail. Gao is also under the control of French and Malian troops, leaving only Kidal still in rebel hands among the major towns in Mali's desert north. The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has agreed to boost its troop committment for Mali to 5,700—now that (unless an insurgency is to follow) France has already done the bulk of the fighting. In very sad news, the jihadist forces upon fleeing Timbuktu for the desert, apparently torched the Ahmed Baba Institute—a library housing a priceless collection of centuries-old Islamic manuscripts. "They burned the Ahmed Baba Institute," Timbuktu's exiled Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse said from Bamako. "It's a catastrophe—for Timbuktu and all humanity." (Middle East Online, DPA, NYT, Jan. 28)
French and Malian troops are reported to have entered the key central Malian towns of Diabaly and Doutenza, routing the jihadist forces that had taken power there. "The goal is the total reconquest of Mali," said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. "We will not leave any pockets" of resistance. US Air Force C-17 transport planes have completed five flights from bases in France into Bamako, delivering 80 troops and more than 120 tons of their equipment, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little. It could take the Pentagon two weeks to transport the entire 600-member French mechanized infantry unit and all of their gear, according to Pentagon officials. Michael Battle, US ambassador to the African Union, emphaszied: "Our support of French operations in Mali does not involve what is traditionally referred to as boots on the ground... We don't have any plans to put [boots[ on the ground at this time in support of French operations."
Malian security forces have killed civilians in the town of Niono in central Mali (Ségou region), Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Jan. 20. HRW said that Mali's army has been targeting ethnic groups associated with rebels in the north, particularly Tuaregs and Arabs. HRW called on Mali's government, as well as France and West African nations to ensure that civilians are protected from violence. During the ongoing fighting between the Malian government and Islamist rebels, HRW has accused both sides of committing human rights violations, and urged rebel groups earlier this week to release all child soldiers.
The son of Libya's deposed leader Moammar Qaddafi appeared in court in Zintan, Libya, on Jan. 17. Saif al-Islam Qaddafi is accused of transferring information related to Libya's national security to an International Criminal Court (ICC) delegation. He is also accused of insulting Libya's new flag and attempting to escape from prison. Saif al-Islam's trial was postponed until May because he was not represented by a lawyer at the hearing. One of Saif al-Islam's co-defendants in the case related to information on Libya's national security is his ICC-appointed lawyer Melinda Taylor.
Algerian military forces on Jan. 17 launched an assault on the Amenas gas complex in the interior Sahara, where Islamists were holding dozens of hostages. Nearly 50 were killed in the raid, including 35 hostages, according to the spokesman of the militant group—variously named as "Battalion of the Masked" or "Signatories for Blood"—in a call to the Mauritanian news agency ANI. An Algerian government official called the number "exaggerated." Veteran jihadist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar AKA "Laaouar" or "Lawar" (the One-Eyed) claimed responsibility for attacking the complex, jointly operated by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algerian parastatal Sonatrach. Belmokhtar was until recently a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but was pushed out of the group late last year in a factional split. He has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.