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Thursday, January 31, 2013

AFRICA: France in 'final phase' of Mali intervention: experts


PARIS — France is entering the final phase of its military intervention in Mali after a lightning advance that quickly exposed the weakness of Islamist rebels holding the country's north, experts said.
 
But while the rebels may be on the run, they still pose a threat and much work remains to be done to flush them out of a vast cross-border desert region.
French forces on Wednesday entered Kidal, the last major town in their drive to rout Islamist fighters from northern Mali, days after the French-led capture of Gao and Timbuktu in a three-week offensive.
With the Islamists being driven from all their major strongholds, Paris is now hoping to wind down its intervention and hand the struggle over to African troops.
Experts said the speed of the French advance into Mali's north -- Kidal is nearly 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako -- has put paid to concerns that France was facing a potentially long and difficult battle against the rebels.
"Those who had exaggerated the Islamist danger in Mali were severely mistaken," said Eric Denece, director of the French Centre for Intelligence Research, a think tank.
"After a few days of fighting they became aware of their weaknesses and hit the road," he said.
Islamist groups took advantage of the chaos following a military coup in Bamako in March to seize the country's north.
France swept to Mali's aid on January 11 after the Islamists advanced south toward the capital, sparking fears the entire country would fall into their grasp and become a haven for extremist militants like Taliban-era Afghanistan.

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