France has proclaimed its intervention in Mali a “success” but warned that the conflict was entering a dangerous new phase.
French forces, delayed by a sand storm, were expected to occupy the town of Kidal, the last rebel bastion in Mali, by the end of today.
Once Kidal falls, French forces will have captured in less than three weeks all the populated areas of northern Mali - a territory larger than Spain - for the loss of one dead helicopter pilot.
The French defence minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, acknowledged today, however, that the trickier parts of the operation were about to begin: resisting a possible guerrilla war and brokering a settlement of the decades-old grievances of the Tuareg and Arab peoples of northern Mali.
“We are arriving at a moment of transition in the French intervention,” Mr Le Drian said. “It has been a success. . The jihadists have suffered heavy losses…They have scattered, either to their homes…or across international frontiers or to the Adrar des Ifoghas (mountains on the Algerian border). This may just be a tactical withdrawal and we should not allow ourselves to be duped.”
French special and airborne forces seized the airport at Kidal, in north eastern Mali on Tuesday night. They were expected to enter the last rebel bastion yesterday but were held up by a large sand storm.
Mr Le Drian said that French forces would enter the town shortly, accompanies by soldiers from “other African countries”. It is understood that Chadian soldiers were being airlifted north today.
No Malian soldiers will be allowed to enter Kidal at this stage. The town has been the epicentre of tuareg and arab unrest since Mali gained its independence 53 years ago. Islamist rebels are believed to have fled the town, leaving it in the hands of two, secular , separatist rebel groups who are prepared to enter talks with the government in Bamako.
Leaders of one of these groups, the MNLA, or Mouvement Nationale pour la Liberation(acute on e ) de Azawad, have warned of a possible “bloodbath” if the Malian army largely composed of black soldiers from the south of the country enter the town.
Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore said today that he was ready to talk to the MNLA rebels provided that they dropped any claim for independence. He said that there was no question of negotiations with the three Islamist rebel groups who hijacked the insurgency from MNLA last year.
"Today, the only group that we could think of negotiating with is certainly the MNLA. But, of course, on condition that the MNLA drops any pretence to a territorial claim,” Mr Traore told French radio.