French may soon start to withdraw Mali troops

By Angela Charlton and Baba Ahmed

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5 2013 9:15 p.m. MST

While their forces took control of Kidal's airport some time ago, it's not clear why they did not take Kidal city with the same swiftness as they took Gao and Timbuktu.

There was speculation that the pace of their advance was being constrained by the fact that the retreating rebels are holding Western hostages, including eight who are French. Fears have mounted about their safety as the French intervention has moved closer to where several of them are thought to be held.

In a sign of normalcy, the mayor's office of Timbuktu announced that they will open for the first time in 10 months on Wednesday, said the city's mayor, Ousmane Halle.

Government officials will tackle "the most important needs first," he said. "Including garbage removal and issuing birth certificates for the children born since the Islamists took over."

"The city is now secure. There are ongoing patrols by French and Malian soldiers, and we no longer have any reason to fear an attack by the Islamists," he said.

However, the conflict may go on for a long time, warned a high-ranking Algerian security official, based in the vast Sahara bordering Mali.

"The war risks being long and the terrorist groups could use the same strategy used by al-Qaida in Afghanistan against U.S. forces, notably suicide attacks and surprise attacks targeting French and Malian troops," said the security officer, who refused to give his name because the sensitivity of the subject. "While the French and Malian forces easily chased the terrorists out of the Malian cities like Gao and Kidal, it will be more difficult for them to dislodge them from the mountains in the north of Mali."

Meanwhile, secular rebels from Mali's Tuareg group say they have arrested two Islamic extremists, including the man blamed for enforcing stoning deaths and amputations in Timbuktu.

A statement from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad on Monday said Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed of Ansar Dine and Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed of the Movement for Unity and Oneness of the Jihad, or MUJAO, were arrested Saturday near Mali's border with Algeria.

The NMLA launched a rebellion last year and seized most of northern Mali. They initially fought alongside Ansar Dine and MUJAO but they soon hijacked the Tuareg nationalist uprising.

The NMLA said the two men have been interrogated and information shared with French troops who are leading a military intervention in Mali. It said the men are in Kidal. The claims of these arrests, however, could not be immediately confirmed.

Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press reporters Edith Lederer in the United Nations, Michelle Faul in Johannesburg and Aomar Ouali in Algiers, Algeria contributed.

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