By KRISTA LARSON
GOSSI, Mali — French troops launched airstrikes on Islamic militant training camps and arms depots around Kidal and Tessalit in Mali’s far north, defense officials said Sunday, as the first supply convoy of food, fuel and parts to eastern Mali headed across the country.
French planes pounded extremist training camps as well as arms and fuel depots from Saturday night into the early hours of Sunday, according to French army Col. Thierry Burkhard.
“It was an important aerial operation to the north of the town Kidal and in the Tessalit region where we targeted logistical depots and Islamist training camps … some 20 sites,” said Burkhard. He said there were 30 planes used in the operation including Mirage and Rafale jets.
The French intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 to stem the advance of the al-Qaida-linked fighters. Though they succeeded in ousting the rebels from the three main northern cities they occupied, including the fabled city of Timbuktu, Sunday’s aerial operation highlights that the French still see militants in the extreme northern area near the border with Algeria a threat.
“Here, there’s still various Islamist groups like the MUJAO, and Ansar Dine,” he said. The Islamic extremist group the Movement for Unity and Oneness of the Jihad, is known as MUJAO.
As the French bombarded in the north, they also neared the eastern town of Gao with its first supply convoy since the conflict began.
Crowds along the roads heading northeast from Sevare toward Gao on Sunday thronged the roads screaming “Vive la France!” and old men in long flowing robes on bicycles held onto the handlebars with one hand to wave as soldiers passed by. Even camels grazing in acacia trees perked up as the 62-vehicle convoy spanning 5 kilometers (3 miles) lumbered by. Others passed by in carts, sometimes moving faster than the French.
The convoy was near Gossi, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) southwest of its final destination of Gao on Sunday. It proceeded slowly because of concerns about land mines between Gossi and Gao. Four Malian soldiers died last week when one exploded, and two others have been found in the vicinity since, said Lt. Emmanuel who gave only his first name in keeping with French military protocol.
The logistics convoy carrying food, fuel and spare parts for the French military 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) over ground from Bamako to Gao underscores the logistical difficulties facing the mission in Mali.
“The distances are very long. In Afghanistan we could do it in a day. Now, it’s eight days round trip here,” said Lt. Emmanuel. The convoy is bringing a 15-day supply, he said.
Still, the successes of the operation were seen alongside the small villages where signs of life were returning to normal, and where there was no visible presence of the Islamic rebels who imposed harsh rule for months.
The approach of the convoy and the use of aerial assaults come three weeks after France unilaterally launched its military intervention — and significantly, just hours after French President Francois Hollande left Mali soil. On Saturday, he visited Timbuktu to a liberator’s welcome. Thousands of people stood elbow-to-elbow behind a perimeter line in downtown Timbuktu, hoisting the homemade French flags they had prepared for Hollande’s arrival to the northern desert city that French troops liberated last week after 10 months of control by al-Qaida-linked groups.
He then flew to Bamako, the capital, where he spoke before boarding a plane back to Paris. He stressed the successes of the French intervention, but warned that threats of extremism will continue.
“Terrorism has been rejected. It has been chased, but not yet beaten,” Hollande said.
France has said that it eventually wants to hand over responsibility for the mission to the Malian army and other African counterparts. But, once the country’s thousands of troops, fighter planes and helicopters leave, Mali’s weak army and soldiers from neighboring countries might be hard-pressed to retain control of northern Mali’s cities if the Islamic extremists attempt a comeback from their desert hideouts.
In an interview with the Sunday’s French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hubert Tieman Coulibaly, expressed the government’s hope that the French military operation carry on until the Islamists have no more weapons left.
“Faced with seasoned fighters whose arsenal must be destroyed, we wish the mission to continue,” Coulibaly said. “Especially given how important the aerial dimension is.”
Adamson reported from Paris.