France continues Mali strikes, sends troops to Bamako

Reuters reports: French forces carried out a second day of air strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali on Saturday and sent troops to protect the capital Bamako in an operation involving several hundred soldiers, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

A French pilot was killed on Friday when his helicopter was shot down during an air strike near the central town of Mopti as France began the operation to help the Malian government stem a push south by rebels who control much of the north, he said.

The operation targeted a column of rebels headed for Mopti, he said.

“In this intense fighting, sadly, one of our pilots … was fatally injured. He was evacuated to the nearest medical centre before dying of his wounds,” Le Drian told a news conference.

He said France had sent special forces into Mopti to prepare the ground and later sent “several hundred” troops into Bamako on Friday to safeguard the capital.

Nick Hopkins writes: [I]f the jihadists are not stopped in their tracks, the US and EU may yet get drawn into an emerging crisis in a country that some security analysts regard as a dangerous new frontier for Islamic extremism in the post-Afghanistan era.

The attack this week was certainly audacious. Konna is barely 25km from a military base at Sévaré, where the French military is understood to have been flying personnel and supplies this week.

At the moment, it is difficult to know exactly who is behind this new push, but it is likely the group of hardcore jihadists fighting under the broad banner of ‘al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’ are principally involved.

They brought with them the tactics of terror – kidnappings of westerners and the imposition of harsh sharia law in the places over which they have control.

They have been supported by thousands of Tuareg tribesmen, many of whom have returned to Mali last year after being recruited by Muammar Gaddafi to support his regime. Paul Melly, who has written on Mali for Chatham House, said: “This is the first serious attempt by the jihadist groups to push towards the more densely settled south of Mali.

“If they were to break past Konna and seize Mopti, one of the most important towns in Mali, that would be a major blow to morale as well as a military setback.”

“Several jihadist groups are active in northern Mali. Ansar Dine, which is mainly composed of local Tuaregs, may be seeking to bolster its hand in negotiations with the government, which it recently began but then suspended.

“But the other jihadist factions, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, are largely foreign-led and have not been engaged in talks. Following December’s UN vote to authorise a west African intervention force, the rebels may be trying to seize as much ground as they can before international troops arrive to help the government mount a push to restore its authority in the north.”

Alex Perry adds: There is still a lingering colonial attitude in Paris that France is primus inter pares among foreign players in the region: West Africa is part of la francophonie — the French-speaking world — and France demands and assumes the role of lead international player there. Second, and not unrelated, there is a (probably well-founded) fear in France that a radical Islamist Mali threatens France most of all, since most of the Islamists are French speakers and many have relatives in France. (Intelligence sources in Paris have told TIME that they’ve identified aspiring jihadis leaving France for northern Mali to train and fight.) Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the three groups that make up the Malian Islamist alliance and which provides much of the leadership, has also designated France — the representative of Western power in the region — as a prime target for attack.

But while everyone had agreed on the need for action, no one wanted to be the one to actually do it. The Islamists have made tens of millions of dollars from ransoming Western hostages and cocaine smuggling and spent much of it on acquiring large parts of Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal, brought into Mali by Tuareg troops who fought for the former Libyan dictator.

Facing off against them is a Malian army that is demoralized, rarely paid, sometimes barely fed, and poorly armed. Backstopping it in any fight under long-discussed plans were also meant to be Mali’s West African neighbors, represented by the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS. But divided, dysfunctional and with mostly similarly ragged armies at its disposal, ECOWAS has so far produced little in the way of solid troop commitments.

These uncomfortable realities made an earlier U.N.-French plan — in which a West African force of 3,000 would fight the Islamists, while French and U.S. trainers would assist the Malian army in doing the same — “crap,” in the delicate leaked words of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice. Indeed, the notion that an African intervention force had remained an idea rather than a reality was recognized in the U.N.’s initial resolution in favor of military action in Mali, passed on Dec. 20, which clarified that any force was unlikely to deploy until September. Hollande’s description of that earlier resolution as a game changer seemed emptier still when considered against the Islamists’ holding of at least seven French hostages — specifically, as one Islamist commander told TIME last year, to safeguard against any French action. And if war was a poor prospect, peace talks weren’t a great option either. The last round didn’t even include the Islamists, broke up in December without any resolution and was in any case hosted by Burkina Faso, whose security services have long been suspected of benefiting commercially from Islamist kidnappings.

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