French and Chadian troops have captured the main al-Qa’ida “citadel” in northern Mali, according to French officials and journalists.
After three weeks of close combat and aerial bombardment in the Ifoghas mountains, France believes that it has overrun the complex of tunnels and caves which the islamist insurgents have built as a sanctuary over the last three years.
Fighting continues but intercepted communications suggest that the remaining rebels are trying to flee on foot and on camel-back, presumably towards Mauretania or Algeria, according to Le Monde.
The fall of the mountain base of Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leaves several question unanswered, however. The three-week-old French and Chadian offensive has found no trace of eight French hostages who were believed to be held in the area. France is still refusing to confirm week-old Chadian claims that two senior Islamist commanders – Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar – died in the fighting.
French forces further south are also facing stiffer than expected resistance, and retaliation, from a Malian islamist rebel movement loosely allied to Al Qa’ida. Over 50 jihadist fighters belonging to the “Mujao” organisation are reported to have died in clashes with French forces near Gao last week.
The battle for the Ifoghas mountains - and especially the remote Amettetai valley where AQIM built its citadel – was the second phase of the French military intervention in Mali which began two months ago. Once this phase is over, Paris will face another dilemma. President Francois has promised to begin the withdrawal of troops next month but neither the disorganised Malian army nor a promised West African force is yet ready to occupy the ground if the French leave.