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New airstrikes target Somalia's Shebab
by Staff Writers
Mogadishu (AFP) May 20, 2014

France defers troop pull-out after Mali clashes
Paris (AFP) May 20, 2014 - France has delayed plans to pull troops out of its former colony Mali after a fresh bout of clashes in a key town.

France said earlier this month it was ending its "frontal war phase" in Mali after sending troops there in 2013 to free the country's vast desert north from Islamists and Tuareg rebels who seized control after a coup.

It planned to redeploy 2,000 of its 3,000 remaining troops serving in Mali under an operation named Serval to other countries in the Sahel region.

But a French defence source said the redeployment had been delayed after fighting between rebels and the army in the flashpoint northern town of Kidal.

"Given the events of the last 48 hours, the operation to restructure the forces under Serval and send them to other French units in the Sahel-Sahara region has been deferred by a few weeks," the source said.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had been due to go to Mali and Chad at the weekend for a reorganisation of the deployment, but has cancelled the visit, the source said.

Tuareg separatist rebels clashed with Malian soldiers in the northern town of Kidal during a visit by Prime Minister Moussa Mara, whose government is backed by French soldiers who have helped dislodge rebels and armed Islamic extremists from northern towns.

The fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) took 32 civil servants hostage but released them on Monday. The battle left eight Malian soldiers and 28 rebels dead.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita welcomed the released hostages as they stepped off the plane that brought them back to Bamako.

"You have been to hell and back," he said.

Sources in the UN force assisting French and Malian forces in peacekeeping efforts in the restive north said several hundred people had fled their homes to Kidal to the relative safety of nearby desert camps.

A French-led initiative last weekend saw pledges by west African countries and France and the United States to fight Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamist group together, with joint surveillance and intelligence sharing.

The African Union force battling Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels said Tuesday it had conducted new air strikes against a rebel base in the south of the country, the second attack in three days.

A statement from Amisom said its planes were after "senior leadership and foreign Al-Shebab fighters" at a base near the town of Jilib in Somalia's Middle Juba region.

It also claimed 50 insurgents were killed in the attack, which "further debilitated Al-Shebab's capacity to wreak havoc and terrorise innocent Somali civilians."

A Shebab spokesman, however, told AFP that only farmland was hit and five civilians wounded.

"The claim of Amisom is baseless and pure propaganda," said the spokesman, Abdulaziz Abu Musab.

Witnesses in the area contacted by AFP said there were several civilians hurt, but had no information on any Shebab casualties.

"We heard very big explosions as military jets flew over the town. Two of the bombs landed near Faragurow village leaving four civilians wounded but we don't know about other casualties they may have caused," said a local resident, Moalim Hassan.

Idle Ahmed, another resident, said Shebab militant fighters riding on pick-up trucks were seen rushing to the scene and stopped ordinary civilians from approaching.

"The jets targeted a Shebab military base but we don't know their casualties," he said.

The airstrikes on the town of Jilib are understood to be part of the offensive by the 22,000-strong UN-backed African Union force, who in March launched a fresh bid to wrest remaining towns from the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists.

The impoverished town is a key Shebab hub in southern Somalia's Middle Juba region, some 320 kilometres (200 miles) southwest of Mogadishu.

It was not immediately clear where the jets were from, but Kenya is part of the AU force and has used its jets to strike Shebab bases before.

Hardline Shebab insurgents once controlled most of southern and central Somalia.

After withdrawing from fixed positions in the capital Mogadishu nearly three years ago, they have lost most large towns to the AU and government soldiers. However, they still regularly launch guerrilla raids.


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