British foreign minister arrives in Mali to meet anti-Islamist troops

French army's chief of staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud. PHOTO | AFP 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrived in Mali on Monday to meet French-backed African troops fighting Islamist militants for control of the west African country, his ministry said.

“My visit, the first by a British foreign secretary, underlines the UK’s strong commitment to work with international partners to support Mali and countries in the region on countering terrorism and restoring security,” Hague said.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s branch in northern Africa on Monday confirmed that one of its senior leaders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, had been killed in northern Mali, a report said.

Zeid was killed as a result of a French bombing raid in the Ifoghas mountains, a member of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) who normally writes for jihadist websites told the private Mauritanian news agency Sahara Medias.

He denied claims, however, that another Islamist leader in the region, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had been killed, saying that Belmokhtar “is in the Gao region, waging the fight against he enemy.”

The killing of Zeid was first reported by Chadian forces battling the Islamit militants.

At the same time, the French army's chief of staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, said Monday that the army did not know know where French hostages being held in the Sahel region were currently located but that it believed they were not in areas being hit by French air strikes.

“We do not know where the hostages are,” he said. “We think the hostages are not there (where air strikes are taking place), otherwise we would not be carrying them out.”

Guillaud said French forces in Mali had uncovered an “industrial terrorist organisation” in the northeast, where French and Chadian troops are hunting down Islamist rebels driven from northern Mali’s main cities by a lightning French-led offensive launched in mid-January.

Mountain hideouts

French forces have so far found more than 50 weapons caches, a dozen workshops and 20 improvised explosive devices, he said.

“It shows that this goes beyond... Mali, beyond even the Sahel, it was expansionist,” he said.

“We have cleaned out one of the valleys, a main valley where Chadian and French forces moved in about 10 days ago,” he said. “We searched all night and from today (Monday) we will move into the other valleys.”

Guillaud said the military operation was dealing a fatal blow to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the leading militant group in the region.

“We are breaking the back of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, that was the goal set by the president,” he said.

He said the French military was not surprised that fighting had intensified in recent days as Islamist rebels have been cornered in mountain hideouts.

“We knew this would be the hardest part of this campaign,” Guillaud said. “We knew that we were dealing with fanatics.”

He said he believed there were “several hundred” Islamist rebels remaining in the region at most.

“We estimate that there were between 1,200 and 1,500 fighters in northern Mali when we intervened on January 11 and we think today more than a quarter of them are in the Ifoghas” mountains, he said.

Can Kiir deliver on his promise of peace and stability in South Sudan?

Read Story:Can Kiir deliver on his promise of peace and stability in South Sudan?