Malian forces have arrested eight suspected al-Qaeda-linked fighters in northern Mali.
Their capture comes as French fighter jets targeted rebel hideouts and fuel depots in the northeastern desert on Tuesday, near the Algerian border.
The eight suspects captured in Gao are expected to be transferred to Bamako where they will eventually stand trial. They include six Malians, a Nigerian and an Algerian man.
Meanwhile, delegations from the African Union, United Nations, European Union, West African regional body ECOWAS, banks and aid groups have been meeting in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the country’s future.
After a three-week military campaign by French-led forces drove the rebels from most of their strongholds, including the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, dozens of French warplanes on Sunday carried out major air strikes on rebel training and logistics centres in Mali’s mountainous northeast, near the Algerian border.
“It is about destroying their rear bases, their depots,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio.
“They have taken refuge in the north and the northeast but they can only stay there long-term if they have ways to replenish their supplies.”
Fabius said that the army aimed to stop the rebels from doing so by targeting them in a very “efficient” manner.
The al-Qaeda-linked rebels who controlled northern Mali for 10 months have fled into the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the Kidal region, a mountainous landscape honeycombed with caves.
They are believed to be holding seven French hostages with them, kidnapped in Mali and Niger in 2011 and 2012.
Algeria on Monday also beefed up its positions on the Malian border to prevent “the infiltration of terrorist groups”, Mohamed Baba Ali, a member of parliament from the southern town of Tamanrasset, told the AFP news agency.
French President Francois Hollande said during a visit to Mali on Saturday that while France had plans to pull out from the country, French troops would not leave until it had driven out all the al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups.
“We want to be rapidly relieved by the AFISMA African forces in the cities that we hold,” the French foreign minister said.
France says it is eager to hand over security in Mali to some 8,000 African troops, gradually deploying to the country under a UN-backed plan.
During Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels, European officials will try to find ways to reinforce military gains [AFP]
In Paris, US Vice President Joe Biden, after meeting Hollande, backed that demand and said the UN should make the African mission a formal UN peacekeeping operation, a plan UN officials say they are pushing forward.
The EU thinks it can help quickly by releasing some of the 250m euros ($342m) of development aid it froze after a coup in Mali in March last year.
“When a state falls apart, it takes a while to put it back together again … Nevertheless, we need to try,” said a senior EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The country is also experiencing a crippling food crisis which has put an estimated 18 million people at risk of starvation across the Sahel.
The International Red Cross said despite the retreat of the rebels, residents who had fled fighting, estimated by the UN at more than 350,000, were also hesitant to return home, with only 7,000 in central Mali returning so far.