Hollande to visit Mali as French close to securing key towns
JOHANNESBURG — French President Francois Hollande will visit Mali Saturday after his country's forces drove insurgents out of most major towns they controlled in the north.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canfin will accompany Hollande, his office said Friday in an emailed statement, without giving further details.
Fabius, speaking to reporters in Paris, reiterated that France is "advancing positively" against the rebels in the West African nation's desert north and that African troops will take over from its forces, which won't stay in Mali permanently.
After seizing control of the towns of Gao and Timbuktu, French troops have also occupied the airport in Kidal, the last major rebel stronghold. France began a military campaign on Jan. 11 to help Mali restore state control over a nation that vies with Tanzania as Africa's third-biggest gold producer.
On the eve of the French campaign, Malian troops killed civilians suspected of siding with Islamist militants, while the insurgents executed captured soldiers and used children as fighters, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today in separate statements.
Malian soldiers killed at least 13 men in the then rebel- held towns of Konna and Sevare, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement on its website. The insurgents executed at least seven soldiers, including five who were wounded, it said.
Eyewitnesses in Sevare said "more than two dozen civilians" suspected of supporting the Islamists were executed, according to Amnesty. The groups urged the Malian authorities to investigate the abuses and respect international humanitarian law.
Mali's army spokesman, Colonel Diarran Kone, declined to comment when called Friday.
In the north, the presence of anti-personnel landmines and unexploded weaponry is a "serious concern" for the local population and for aid agencies planning to help them, Adrian Edwards, spokesman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, told reporters Friday in Geneva.
Some Malians who fled their homes told the agency their houses have been destroyed while others are eager to return to the north as soon as the roads reopen, Edwards said. A widely shared complaint is about the lack of assistance from the government and aid agencies, according to UNHCR.
Separatist Touareg rebels and Islamist militants overran northern Mali following a March military coup in Bamako. European and U.S. officials expressed concern the region may become a haven and training ground for militant groups intent on attacking western targets.
Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, said Thursday he'd negotiate with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the main Touareg rebel group known as the MNLA, provided it drops claims for a separate homeland. He rejected talks with Islamist groups such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.