Mali campaign: French jets hit rebel bases near Kidal

French troops in Gao, 3 February French troops have driven Islamist militants from Gao and other population centres

French warplanes have bombed rebel bases and depots in remote parts of northern Mali to try to cut off supply routes, France's foreign minister says.

Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio that the rebels would not be able to stay long without fresh supplies.

Thirty jets struck on Sunday around Tessalit amid fears the rebels could re-group in the mountainous region.

In Paris, US Vice-President Joe Biden backed plans for an African-led force and eventual UN operation in Mali.

Biden commended France on its leading role in the Mali campaign

Speaking alongside French President Francois Hollande, who visited Mali at the weekend, Mr Biden said they had agreed that African troops should take over from French forces "as quickly as reasonably possible", before the UN assumes overall command.

Efforts must then be made "as quickly as is prudent [to] transition that mission to the United Nations," Mr Biden said.

Mr Hollande said the French-led mission would continue, with the aim of restoring Mali's "territorial integrity" before peacekeeping operations began.

Kidal talks

Speaking before his president's appearance at the Elysee Palance, Mr Fabius said that Sunday's air strikes had been aimed at "destroying the bases and fuel depots" of the rebels.

"If you look at the map, they have taken refuge in the north and in the north-east," Mr Fabius said.

"But they can stay there for long only if they have ways to get supplies. So, in a very efficient manner, the army is stopping that."

Mali's main Islamist militants

  • Ansar Dine - home-grown movement with a number of Tuareg fighters who returned from Libya after fighting alongside Muammar Gaddafi's troops.
  • Islamic Movement for Azawad - an offshoot of Ansar Dine which says it rejects "terrorism" and wants dialogue
  • Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - al-Qaeda's North African wing, with roots in Algeria
  • Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) - an AQIM splinter group whose aim is to spread jihad to the whole of West Africa
  • Signed-in-Blood Battalion - an AQIM offshoot committed to a global jihad and responsible for Algerian gas facility siege

Mr Fabius would not say whether the air strikes were aimed at preparing for a new ground assault, but said transition to African forces - and withdrawal from Timbuktu - "could happen very fast".

The French launched their intervention in Mali on 11 January as Islamist militants moved south and threatened the capital, Bamako.

Since then, the militants have been driven from population centres in the north and east.

Kidal remains the only major town not in the control of French and Malian forces.

French troops are at the airport in Kidal, but rebels from a Tuareg group who want their own homeland in northern Mali - the MNLA - still control the town itself.

Malian Interim President Dioncounda Traore has offered to hold talks with the MNLA in order to help secure Kidal.

Tessalit is about 200km (125 miles) north of Kidal and is a gateway to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where rebels are believed to have sought refuge after being forced from the main population centres.

It is thought the mountainous areas could provide perfect hiding places for the militants.

Satellite image showing the location of Tessalit and the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains

It is believed that several French civilian hostages are being held by militants in the area, making the situation even more delicate.

On Saturday Mr Hollande said it would be wrong to assume the military operation was over, while Mr Traore said it would be difficult to completely rid the country of Islamists.

French withdrawal

Meanwhile, aid agency Oxfam has warned that food and fuel supplies to some parts of northern Mali are starting to dry up as many predominantly Arab and Tuareg traders have fled fearing reprisal attacks.

Oxfam said prices in Gao had risen by more than 20% since the French military intervention.

Philippe Conraud, Oxfam country director in Mali, said if the traders did not return soon, it could become "very difficult for people to get enough food to feed their families".

Reports have also emerged that a senior figure in the main militant Islamist movement - Ansar Dine - has been captured near the Algerian border by a rival separatist group.

Malian security sources quoted by AFP news agency named the man as Mohamed Moussa Ag Mouhamed, third in command of the group. The report cannot be verified.

Mr Hollande received a warm welcome on Saturday as he visited the northern desert city of Timbuktu, recaptured by French and Malian troops a week ago.

A total of 3,500 French troops are currently in Mali.

Nearly 2,000 army personnel from Chad and Niger are helping consolidate the recent gains. A further 6,000 troops will be deployed as part of the UN-backed African-led International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma).

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