French enter last Islamist stronghold in Mali

French troops  on Wednesday entered Kidal, the last Islamist bastion in Mali’s north after a whirlwind Paris-led offensive, as France urged peace talks to douse ethnic tensions targeting Arabs and Tuaregs.

French troops arrived at the Kidal airport just days after the capture of Gao and Timbuktu in a whirlwind three-week campaign that Paris hopes to wind down and hand over to African forces.

However, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Wednesday the troops had been unable to leave the airport due to a sandstorm.

“French elements were deployed overnight in Kidal,” French army spokesman Thierry Burkhard said in Paris earlier. A spokesman for the breakaway Islamic Movement of Azawad, which on Monday announced it had taken control of the town, said its leader was speaking to the French.

Kidal lies 1,500 kilometres northeast of the capital Bamako and until recently was controlled by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).

Last Thursday however, the newly formed group announced it had split from Ansar Dine, that it rejected “extremism and terrorism” and wanted to find a peaceful solution to Mali’s crisis. Ansar Dine and two other Islamist groups took advantage of the chaos following a military coup in Bamako last March to seize the north.

Offenders suffered whippings, amputations and in some cases were executed while Islamists also destroyed sacred shrines in the ancient city of Timbuktu that they considered idolatrous.

France swept to Mali’s aid on January 11 as the Islamists advanced south towards Bamako, sparking fears that the whole country could become a haven for terrorists, and now has 3,500 troops on the ground. But in the longer term, Paris regards a political settlement between the government in Bamako and Tuaregs seeking a degree of self-rule as crucial to Mali’s stability.

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