French troops captured the local airport in the opening of the battle for Timbuktu Sunday in northern Mali. After having encircled the city French airborne troops made their first combat air assault since 1978 catching al-Qaeda forces completely off guard and resulting in a bloodless capture of the airport.
The next stage is to liberate the city itself from rebel and al-Qaida forces holding the city who are now known to have dynamited ancient landmarks and historical points in Timbuktu along with imposing strict Sharia law on the local population of the city.
French and Malian troops had on Saturday liberated the Islamic stronghold of Gao, northern Mali’s most populous city. The French Air Force conducted upwards of twenty air strikes in preparation for the all out ground offensive the likes of which France has not conducted in several decades.
France launched the military campaign in Mali earlier this month after steady advances and gains beginning in April 2012 by the al-Qaida group, Movement for Unification and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). After first allying themselves with Mali’s Tuareg rebels the MUJAO eventually sidelined them flogging or stoning or executing anyone voicing opposition.
After capturing northern Mali the MUJAO began massing for an assault on the south to advance on and capture the capital city of Bamako. French forces and troops from neighboring African nations initially deployed to reinforce the defense of Bamako, while still more French troops were sent to mass with Malian forces further north.
The tide turned one week ago when French and Malian troops launched a powerful air-land counterattack against MUJAO forces at the town of Diabaly breaking their assault line and forcing them into a headlong route.
Known as Operation “Serval”, French intervention in Mali has been an astonishing success thus far. After several decades of remaining largely out of any major conflicts aside from participation in NATO efforts in Afghanistan, many military experts are indeed surprised, though impressed with French performance in what was an unexpected and hastily organized effort.
Mali already had internal strife among its Tuareg tribes. However, the real trouble began in March 2012 after Malian army officers carried out a coup which eventually forced the Malian Prime Minister Cheick Modibo to resign in December.
Al-Qaeda sought to exploit the situation, allying with the Tuareg tribesman to capture northern Mali and declare an Islamic state. The Tuareg however objected to the imposition of Sharia law and the alliance was broken.