PARIS — French warplanes bombed Islamist militant bases and depots deep into northern Mali to disrupt their supply routes, French officials said Monday, as secular Tuareg rebels in northern Mali said they had captured two Islamist commanders near the Algerian border.
The Tuaregs favor independence and had joined forces with better-armed Islamist fighters last year to take over much of Mali’s north. But the Tuaregs were soon edged out by their Islamist counterparts, who controlled the region’s major towns and imposed a harsh version of Islamic law on the populace, cutting off hands, stoning a couple to death and beating people in the streets.
Now, with the rapid advance of the French military campaign to recapture northern Mali, the Tuareg fighters have vowed to help French forces fight the Islamist militants.
The main Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, announced that it had captured Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, an Islamist leader who helped impose Shariah law in the city of Timbuktu. It also said it had seized Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, described as a leader of the Islamist group MUJAO, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which is a splinter from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and responsible for kidnapping at least one French hostage.
The two men were captured Saturday near the Algerian border by a patrol and brought to the northern city of Kidal on Sunday for questioning, said Mossa Ag Attaher, a spokesman for the MNLA, speaking from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. He said the French would be welcome to question the men.
The MNLA — the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the Tuareg name for northern Mali — now controls the northern city of Kidal, while French forces remain at the city’s airport.
The French are reluctant to move into Kidal with Malian soldiers, whom the Tuaregs regard as interlopers and who have been accused of human-rights abuses against Tuaregs. But French special operations forces are in the area, French officials said on Monday. The French are also pressing the government in the capital, Bamako, to open political negotiations with the MNLA to provide stronger autonomy to the north — but within a united Mali.
Paris and Bamako have called on the MNLA to give up its aspiration for independence, but Attaher said that Tuaregs needed firm assurances that their rights and freedoms would be better protected and that they would have more political power.
If those guarantees are provided, he said, “the MNLA will accept.” But in return for giving up independence, he asked, “What is Mali proposing?”
A French military spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard, said Paris would not confirm or discuss the capture of the men. But the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said Monday that at least 30 French jets had bombed “bases and fuel depots” in northern Mali around Tessalit, 125 miles north of Kidal, on Sunday to prevent the Islamists from regrouping in the mountainous region.