OLD WAYS: Women sift wheat in a field near Segou, central Mali, about 240km from Bamako. French troops in armoured personnel carriers rolled through the streets of Diabaly on Monday, winning praise from residents of the besieged town. Picture: AP

Serge Daniel



Y: Mali’s army chief said his French-backed forces could reclaim the northern towns of Gao and fabled Timbuktu from Islamists in a month, as more offers of aid poured in for the offensive.

French planes bombed a major base of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) near Timbuktu on Tuesday, a defence ministry official said on condition of anonymity, as officials said a mansion belonging to Libyan former strongman Muammar Gaddafi was destroyed.

“In the course of the last French bombings, several jihadists died and the residence of Gaddafi which had become the headquarters of the Islamists was destroyed,” a Malian security official said, adding there were no civilian deaths.

International moves to aid the operations revved up with the US military airlifting French troops and equipment from France into Mali.

“We expect the mission to last for the next several days,” a spokesman for US Africa Command (Africom), Chuck Prichard, said in Germany.

The US Air Force deployed a small team of airmen on the ground and C-17 cargo planes for five flights to Mali since Monday, ferrying 140 tons of supplies and 80 French troops.

“We know from our bilateral contacts that the US is going to be a substantial contributor,” France’s UN ambassador Gerard Araud said.

He added that the EU would help to pay the salaries of the African force expected to take over from the international troops.

Italy said it would send three planes to Mali to help support French and Malian troops for a two- to three-month logistical mission.

Britain said it would consider “very positively” any further French requests for logistical and surveillance support.

Britain has already loaned two C-17 transport planes to France and pledged to provide troops to a EU mission to train the Malian army, but is not considering sending its own forces to the west African country.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon hailed France’s “courageous” intervention but expressed fears over the safety of humanitarian workers and UN employees on the ground.

A UN-backed proposed African force in Mali needed “critical logistical support” to help it take over from French forces.

Ivory Coast said it would deploy 500 soldiers for the African force and Togo has boosted its troop allotment to at least 733 from 500 pledged earlier.

Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Arab Emirates are also providing transport planes or helicopters.

France began its military operation on January 11 and has said it could deploy upwards of 2 500 troops which would eventually hand over control to the African force.

General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said the French-backed army was forging ahead for “the total liberation of northern Mali”, in an interview with French radio station RFI, a day after it rolled into two towns held by Islamists.

“If the support remains consistent, it won’t take more than a month to free Gao and Timbuktu,” he said, referring to two of three main cities along with Kidal, in the vast, semi-arid north which has been occupied for 10 months.

The al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have subjected these towns to strict sharia law, whipping smokers and drinkers, banning music, forcing women to wear veils and long robes, amputating the limbs of thieves and stoning adulterers to death.

Timbuktu was for centuries a key centre of Islamic learning and has become a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.

Today it is a battlefield, overrun by Islamist militants who have been razing its World-Heritage Sites in a rampage that the UN cultural agency has deplored as “tragic”.