US Vice-President Joe Biden on Monday praised the ongoing French military operation in Mali to help the country's government in retaking the northern regions seized by Islamist rebels in April, and congratulated the French troops for the effectiveness of their operations in the African nation.
Speaking alongside French President Francois Hollande in Paris, Biden said Washington backs the French plans to entrust the military mission in Mali to an African-led force before the United Nations eventually assumes control of peacekeeping operations.
Biden revealed that he and the French leader had agreed during their talks that African troops should take over from French forces "as quickly as reasonably possible." He stressed that the African-led force should then make every effort "as quickly as is prudent [to] transition that mission to the United Nations."
In response, Hollande assured the visiting US vice-president that the France's military involvement in Mali would continue until the UN peacekeeping operations begin after the African nation's "territorial integrity" is fully restored.
Earlier on Monday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio that French warplanes bombed rebel bases and depots in the remote northern Tessalit region through Saturday and Sunday for cutting off all supply routes. He said the airstrikes were to ensure that the retreating Islamist rebels "cannot stay there a long time unless they have ways to get new supplies."
Fabius said France plans to hand over control of the military operations to an African-led force as soon as possible. He said French forces would pull out of the fabled city of Timbuktu at the earliest after transferring its control to the African forces, stressing that France does not intend to keep its military presence in Mali for long.
Incidentally, the French offensive had forced the Islamists to abandon the key northern town of Kidal, their last main strong-hold located close to the border with Algeria, last week. Although French troops are in control of Kidal airport, Tuareg rebels who want to curve out their own homeland in northern Mali are still in control of the rest of the town.
Currently, there are nearly 2,100 French soldiers in Mali, a former French colony. The French-led forces have already captured several central cities and towns from the rebels, including Timbuktu, Gao, Konna, Diabaly and Douentza. Kidal is the only major town that is not under the control of French and Malian forces. The coalition force is now expected to focus on tracking down the remaining Islamist rebels holed up in the desert hideouts in the north.
Currently, a 2,000-strong African force, mainly from Nigeria and Senegal, is in Mali to assist the French and Malian troops. The strength of the regional force is expected to be raised to 7,900 in the coming days, with several other West African nations like Chad, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso and Togo pledging to contribute to the UNSC-authorized mission.
France began its military campaign in Mali on January 11 after the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) authorized foreign military intervention in the conflict after Islamist rebels captured several towns in central Mali and threatened to advance further into the government-controlled south.
Several nations, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Italy, are currently providing logistical military assistance to the French mission in Mali without getting directly involved in the conflict.
Earlier, Islamist militants and Mali's Tuareg rebels captured most of the country's northern region in April 2012 amid chaos triggered by a military coup. Nonetheless, their alliance quickly collapsed after the Islamists marginalized the Tuareg rebels and began enforcing strict Islamic laws across the region. According to the UN, the continued conflict as well as drought and political instability have forced more than 412,000 people to flee northern Mali in recent months.