BAMAKO/PARIS/KANO: A suicide car bomber killed a Malian soldier and wounded six others in a raid on the airport in Timbuktu Wednesday night, just a day after Paris said a French-led campaign had nearly driven Islamists out of all of northern Mali.
France said 10 Islamist fighters were killed in the raid on the ancient desert trading town, the first suicide attack there since French and Malian troops chased Al-Qaeda-linked militants from Timbuktu nearly two months ago. It comes weeks ahead of the planned start of France’s withdrawal from Mali.
Captain Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for Mali’s army in Timbuktu, said the Malian soldier was killed when an Islamist detonated a car bomb at a checkpoint near positions held by French soldiers controlling the airport.
“We are mopping up to see if there are any other attackers in the area,” Coulibaly added.
The French military said French air support and troops took part in fighting overnight to repel the attack. There were no French casualties.
A French military officer in Mali, who asked not to be identified, said some 30 Islamists took part in the raid.
“It took a while but the result was good,” the officer said.
The French-led offensive in Mali has pushed a mix of Islamists out of the northern towns and the remote mountain bases they had occupied but the militants have hit back with several suicide attacks on newly freed towns.
In the wake of French President Francois Hollande’s announcement that French troops were in the last phase of operations and virtually all of Mali’s territory would be freed “within days,” Chad warned France and its African allies against crying victory too soon, saying only 70 percent of the battle was won in the country’s desolate far north.
Chad’s Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat urged African nations Thursday to send troops to the front-line in the rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains where 2,400 Chadian soldiers are battling pockets of die-hard Islamists, together with French forces.
Asked about Hollande’s plan to begin withdrawing 4,000 French troops from late April and restore almost all Mali’s sovereignty, Faki said: “More than 70 percent of the job has been done but we shouldn’t celebrate victory too soon because we have an unusual enemy in an unusual terrain.”
“We need to be careful. Look at what happened in Timbuktu today,” he said in an interview in the Chadian Embassy in Paris.
A French diplomatic source told Reuters he believed the French operation was “in the final straight” in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range, near Algeria.
But the attack on Timbuktu – which had not previously seen the guerrilla-style attacks mounted in Gao and Kidal, northern Mali’s two other main towns – is likely to raise concerns over plans by Paris to start withdrawing troops next month.
Mali’s army remains in tatters after a coup and a string of morale-sapping defeats last year, and African troops due to replace the French lack logistics, funding and training.
Efforts to rescue at least seven French hostages held by Islamists in Mali have so far failed and Mauritanian media reported this week that Al-Qaeda’s wing in the region had claimed to have killed one in retaliation for the operation.
France has said it cannot confirm the report.
Chadian President Idriss Deby showed frustration with West African leaders in February, demanding they urgently speed up deployment of forces to north Mali to aid Chadian and French troops. The Chadian death toll stands at about 30 since it launched its intervention in January.
Faki reiterated his president’s concerns but said his country would maintain a contingent within the future U.N. force until Malians were able to protect themselves. He said the details of any U.N. deployment had to be finalized.
Deby has said his troops have killed Al-Qaeda’s two top field commanders in the region, Abdel-Hamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, though France has yet to confirm the information. “We said what we had to say. Those two are well and truly dead,” Faki said. “Our priority is to secure and stabilize the region and save the [French] hostages.”
In other developments Thursday, a video of a French family of seven kidnapped last month which also purports to show the alleged leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram was obtained by AFP.
Audio clips from the video were already reported by AFP earlier this week, but the video had been unavailable. The video shows the purported leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, as well as the seven French hostages. Shekau and the hostages are not together in the same location.
The man in the video resembles past images of the person previously identified as Shekau and his voice is similar. He wears camouflage and a rifle rests against his shoulder.
He says in Arabic in the nearly 11-minute video that the kidnapping was carried out because of the arrest of Boko Haram members or their family members in Nigeria and Cameroon.
The screen is split during part of the time he speaks, with one half showing him and the other a photograph of the family. “God sent us the French hostages,” he says in what is called a message to the presidents of Nigeria, Cameroon and France.
“The proof that we are holding them is that our brothers and sisters were captured in Nigeria and Cameroon. ... We seek no money but the release of our brothers.”
The father of the French family, which includes four children, the couple and an uncle, later reads a statement from a piece of paper.
He is surrounded by his children, his wife and his brother, all seven standing in front of what appears to be a tarpaulin.
A source close to the family confirmed on Monday that the man speaking was indeed the father, Tanguy Moulin-Fournier.
The family were on holiday in the region around Cameroon’s Waza National Park when they were kidnapped Feb. 19.
The father says in the video that they were kidnapped 25 days ago.
Meanwhile, France confirmed Thursday that it recalled its ambassador to Mali. Christian Rouyer, an outspoken advocate of the military intervention, has been brought back to Paris early for reasons that remained unclear.