TIMBUKTU, Mali: A landmine killed two Malian soldiers Thursday in territory recaptured from Islamist rebels, a sign the extremists remain a threat despite being routed by a French-led offensive in the north.
As French troops stood at the gates of Kidal, the last rebel bastion still to be recaptured in the lightning three-week assault, the United Nations was speeding up possible plans to incorporate African troops slowly deploying in Mali into a formal UN peacekeeping force.
On the ground, at least two Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a mine between the central towns of Douentza and Hombori, a Malian security source said, saying it was suspected to have been planted by Islamists.
Mali’s president has ruled out any talks with the radical Islamists who have occupied the north for 10 months, and accused rebels holding Kidal — who have said they want a peaceful solution — of merely “looking for a way out”.
France’s Defence Minister Jan-Yves Le Drian said he supported a mooted UN peacekeeping force for Mali, saying it would be “very positive.”
UN officials said planning for the force was now at an advanced stage.
Meanwhile, French soldiers remained at Kidal’s airport, after being blocked by a sandstorm.
“French forces are in Kidal and holding the airport until such time as they, and other African troops, can secure the town,” said Le Drian.
Paris has urged dialogue between “non-armed terrorist groups” in the north and Mali’s interim government for a long-term solution to the woes of the country which straddles the Sahara desert and the region to the south known as the Sahel.
Tuareg desert nomads in the north have long felt marginalised by Bamako, and last January rebels launched the latest in a string of insurgencies, kickstarting Mali’s rapid implosion.
Their National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) — boosted with weapons left over from the Libyan conflict, where many Tuareg had fought for slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi — stunned the weak Malian army, whose humiliated soldiers staged a coup in March.
But the juggernaut continued, and the Tuareg — who had allied with Al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups — rapidly overrran the vast desert north.
They were soon thrust aside by the extremists, who imposed a brutal form of Islamic law on areas under their control, where offenders were punished by whippings, amputations and executions.
Interim president Dioncounda Traore told French radio RFI he was willing to talk to the secular Tuaregs from the MNLA, but would not meet any of the Islamist groups.
Former members of rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) on Monday claimed to have broken away and formed the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), saying it rejected “extremism and terrorism”.
MIA remains in control of Kidal, a sandy outpost 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of Bamako, and a spokesman said Wednesday its members were speaking to French forces there.
The group also appealed to the international community to prevent the deployment of Malian and West African troops in the Kidal region before a political solution is reached.
But Traore dismissed the apparent MIA olive branch, saying: “Because fear has now changed sides, they are looking for a way out.”
Mali’s parliament on Tuesday adopted a political roadmap which included a commitment to holding July 31 elections and negotiations with representatives of the north.
France has welcomed the move as it hopes to hand over its military operation to nearly 8,000 African troops slowly being deployed.
The former colonial power swept to Mali’s aid on January 11 after the Islamists made a push south towards the capital, amid growing fears the country could become a haven for terrorists.
France now has 3,500 troops on the ground and with support from the Mali army, has retaken several towns, including Gao and Timbuktu, with no resistance.
The Islamists fled early on as French air strikes rained down, and many are believed to have melted away into the desert hills around Kidal.
“The jihadists suffered heavy losses,” Le Drian said. “There were numerous strikes which hit their equipment and men.
“We are arriving at a turning point in the French intervention,” he added.
He said the next step was national reconciliation and putting in place the conditions for the African force, with European support, to secure the territory.
“This does not mean that the military risks and fighting is over,” he said.
Le Drian added it was “likely” that seven French hostages kidnapped by Islamist groups were being held in the Ifoghas mountain region near Kidal.