Mali Tuaregs seize two fleeing Islamist leaders

Tue Feb 5, 2013 6:06am EST
 

By Cheikh Diouara and John Irish

KIDAL, Mali/PARIS (Reuters) - Tuareg rebels in northern Mali said on Monday they had captured two senior Islamist insurgents fleeing French air strikes toward the Algerian border and France pressed ahead with its bombing campaign against al Qaeda's Saharan desert camps.

Pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels said one of their patrols seized Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, an Islamist leader who imposed harsh sharia (Islamic law) in the desert town of Timbuktu, and Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, thought to be responsible for the kidnapping of a French hostage by al Qaeda splinter group MUJWA.

"We chased an Islamist convoy close to the frontier and arrested the two men the day before yesterday," Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, spokesman for the MNLA, told Reuters from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. "They have been questioned and sent to Kidal."

France has deployed nearly 4,000 ground troops, as well as warplanes and armored vehicles in its three-week-old Operation Serval that has broken the Islamist militants' 10-month grip on northern towns. It is now due to gradually hand over to a U.N.-backed African force of some 8,000 troops, known as AFISMA, of which around 3,800 have already been deployed.

Paris and its international partners want to prevent the Islamists from using Mali's vast desert north as a base to launch attacks on neighboring African countries and the West.

After meeting French President Francois Hollande in Paris, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised the "decisiveness and incredible competence" of France's operations. He backed France's call for U.N. peacekeepers to be deployed in Mali.

"We agreed on the need to, as quickly as reasonably possible, establish an African-led mission to Mali and, as quickly as is prudent, transition that mission to the United Nations," Biden said, flanked by Hollande.

Paris believes that deploying U.N. peacekeepers to Mali could eliminate problems over funding the African mission and fears of ethnic reprisals by Malian troops against light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs associated with the Islamists.   Continued...

 
Malian soldiers stand guard before the arrival of France's President Francois Hollande at Independence Plaza in Bamako, Mali February 2, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney