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January 31, 2013

Mali President Says No Talks With Islamists

by VOA News

Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, says he is refusing to hold talks with Islamists who controlled the north before French and Malian forces drove them out.

But Traore told French radio Thursday he would consider meeting with the Tuareg rebel group MNLA if it drops its claim to Malian territory.

The MNLA has been fighting for a Tuareg homeland. It seized part of northern Mali last year and later joined forces with Islamic militants when the Malian government collapsed.

The Tuaregs later split with the militants when they imposed conservative Islamic law in the north, and the MNLA now says it backs the French military operation in Mali.

Success

​​French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian Thursday declared the intervention in Mali a success Thursday, but added that Mali's situation is not yet secure. The minister said in an interview on French radio that the Malians must establish "a reconciliation process" to ensure a stable future.


In Mali Thursday, an army spokesman, Captain Modibo Traore, told VOA that four soldiers were killed when their vehicle ran over a land mine near Gao. The blast wounded another five people.

VOA correspondent Anne Look, who is traveling with French troops in Mali, says the presence of land mines has raised concerns about the safety of troops and civilians.

"What's disturbing about this is that is does seem to confirm fears that the Islamists did mine roads or did leave booby traps for troops coming in, something we've been hearing about from residents of towns like Gao for a while," she said.

French-led forces were reported in control of three key towns in northern Mali Wednesday, after al-Qaida-linked militants fled their last stronghold and escaped into a vast desert region with their weapons.

Insurgents mounted no resistance as French troops arrived at the Kidal airport late Tuesday, just days after they captured Gao and Timbuktu.

Because the cities were recaptured so rapidly and easily, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country's forces will be leaving Mali sooner than expected. An African intervention force backed by the United Nations is preparing to deploy at least 6,000 troops to the region.

Peacekeeping

​​The African troops will be responsible for holding the towns and tracking down Islamist fighters. French authorities say the insurgents melted into villages in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains and surrounding desert areas.

The MNLA first launched a rebellion in the north last January seeking autonomy, but later joined the Islamists to seize control of the region following a coup in Bamako that toppled the government.  The Islamists later pushed the Tuaregs aside and moved to impose strict Islamic law.

French forces launched an offensive against the Islamists nearly three weeks ago as the groups made a push in the direction of the capital, Bamako.

An African-led force is being assembled to help secure Mali once the French forces leave.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the successes of the French-led force, and said its replacements will be challenged to hold the newly liberated towns.  Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the African force faces the task of pursuing the Islamists to ensure they cannot regroup and return.

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