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French-Led Forces Poised To Retake Timbuktu

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. When Islamist militants and rebels took over the vast desert region of Northern Mali last year, the big prize was the fabled city of Timbuktu. This morning, French-led forces are poised to take back Timbuktu. They've reached the airport outside the city, which a joint force of French and Malian troops took over the weekend.

Jacky Rowland is a correspondent for Al-Jazeera. She's embedded with French soldiers, and we reached her at the airport. Good morning.

JACKY ROWLAND: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, I gather French paratroopers have already dropped into Timbuktu. Tell us about that, and what the plan is now.

ROWLAND: Yes. The French attacked the city of Timbuktu from two angles. In the north, French paratroopers dropped. Now, from the South, I was following the ground assault. Ground troops from the French and Malian armies moved up, and have seized the airport. So the situation at the moment, Renee, is that the French - with their allies - are controlling the outskirts of the city. They've set up checkpoints on various access roads.

MONTAGNE: Now, when you were traveling towards Timbuktu with those French troops, what did you see along the way?

ROWLAND: There were a few things that we noticed. First of all was the very enthusiastic welcome to the advancing French forces. Certainly up until now, we've been moving through largely black African territory, and the Malian government army is essentially a black army. It will be interesting to see how that changes as this advance moves further north and we start to move into a more mixed population. There has, over the centuries, been a lot of mistrust between the black Africans and the fairer-skinned Africans. And I think that there could be some apprehension among some parts of the population. Certainly, the Malian army has been accused by Human Rights Watch, and others, of human rights violations.

Now, the other interesting thing that we've noticed was that each town we went through, there were no signs of fighting. And the local people we spoke to said that the rebels - these jihadist fighters - had simply fled when they heard the French were coming. And I think that gives some idea of how it's going to be difficult for the French and their Malian allies to really secure this part of Mali on a long-term basis, bearing in mind the ability of these fighters simply to disappear over borders from which potentially, in the future, they could re - come back.

MONTAGNE: Well, you've really pointed to something that one might be thinking about now. And that was the French, you know - it had been a colonial power in Mali; it was invited in by the government - a rather weak government - to help push out these Islamist militants that had taken over all this territory. But the French do not plan to stay, I gather.

ROWLAND: Yes. It's interesting to look at the longer-term French strategy. It's worth pointing out that in recent years, the Chinese have been making inroads into Africa, both metaphorically and literally. They've been building a lot in Africa. They built the new African Union headquarters. France has been worried about how maybe its influence is now being challenged by the Chinese.

Now, in the longer term, you're right - the French don't want to stay here. The idea is that the joint force of West African nations are due to supply up to 6,000 troops. To them will fall the long-term task not only of securing the territory, but holding it. And that's why it's very important for this West African force to come together. And it's been taking quite a long time, actually, for that to happen.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

ROWLAND: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Jacky Rowland is a correspondent for Al-Jazeera. She's with French troops just outside of Timbuktu, as they ready to retake the city from Islamist militants. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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