AN AL-QAEDA-linked group has said it is ready for talks to free a French hostage in Mali as French-led troops advanced toward the Islamists’ northern bastions after recapturing frontline central towns.
The surprise offer from the Movement for Jihad and Oneness (MUJAO) came on the 16th day of a military operation led by France in its former west African colony to stop MUJAO and other Islamist groups pushing south towards the capital Bamako.
“The MUJAO is ready to negotiate the release of Gilberto,” said spokesman Walid Abu Sarhaoui, referring to Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, a 61-year-old French national of Portuguese origin who was kidnapped in western Mali on November 20.
“We Muslims can come to an understanding on the issue of war,” he added, without elaborating.
West African defence chiefs meanwhile met to review the slow deployment of regional forces to bolster the French-led offensive against Islamists at an emergency meeting in Ivory Coast’s main city Abidjan.
Although the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc has pledged more than 4,500 soldiers, their deployment has been delayed by financing and logistical problems.
Chad, which neighbours Mali and is not an ECOWAS member, has promised 2,000 additional troops. They are grouping in Niger, Mali’s eastern neighbour, with 500 troops from Niger to open a new front against the Islamists.
The African Union said it would be calling on its members to bolster the strength of the African force.
The AU would also seek support from the United Nations for the operation, in the form of transport, medicine and field hospitals, peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told reporters.
“We definitely know, based on the first assumptions… that the force size will have to be significantly augmented,” Lamamra told reporters.
While a fraction of the African forces have arrived in Bamako and are slowly deploying elsewhere, the French and Malian forces have done all of the fighting.
France has already deployed 2,300 troops to Mali and defence officials acknowledge the force will exceed 2,500 soldiers initially set as the upper limit.
Yesterday, the French and Malian forces captured Hombori, another northern town in their advance on the Islamist stronghold of Gao.
A Malian security source said the troops would press on to Gao. Along with Kidal and Timbuktu, it is one of the three major northern towns where the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists have imposed a harsh form of Islamic law (sharia) for 10 months.
To the centre, French-led forces who on Monday had recaptured the town of Diabaly were pushing northeast towards the town of Lere with the aim of taking control of Timbuktu, still further north.
In April last year, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal were seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels — who wanted to declare an independent homeland in the north — and hardline Islamist groups.
The Islamist groups include MUJAO, Ansar Dine, a homegrown Islamist group, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, of which MUJAO is an offshoot.
The Islamists quickly sidelined the Tuaregs to implement their own Islamic agenda. They imposed a harsh interpretation of sharia law, flogging, stoning and executing transgressors, forbidding music and television and forcing women to wear veils.
But plans for a second front against the Islamists were hit on Friday when the insurgents bombed a key bridge at Tassiga which would have given African troops in Niger easy access to Gao.
Aid agencies have expressed increasing concern about the growing food crisis for civilians in the vast semi-arid north of Mali and the drought-wracked Sahel as a whole.
France has asked several Western countries and others to provide logistical support such as planes to allow aerial refuelling, sources close to Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Britain, which has already contributed two C-17 transport planes to airlift military equipment, said it had sent a surveillance plane to aid operations.