France Joins War Against Mali Islamists, Botches Rescue Mission in Somalia
France has launched a military operation to defeat Islamist rebels controlling most of the northern portion of the west African nation and former French colony of Mali.
Hoping to halt the southward advance of Islamist rebels fighting their way toward the capital Bamako, France has deployed combat aircraft and special forces troops to fight alongside Malian government troops. A senior Malian army officer told Reuters that Malian troops backed by French airstrikes have killed more than 100 rebels. A French pilot died on Friday after his helicopter was shot down near the town of Mopti.
The entry of the French into the year-long conflict helped the Malian army recapture the strategic town of Konna, which had been seized by Ansar Dine rebels on Thursday. The rebel capture of Konna, a town of 50,000 located about 435 miles (700 km) northwest of Bamako, had marked a significant and alarming advance by the insurgents deep into government-controlled territory.
“French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian army units to fight against terrorist elements,” Francois Hollande, France’s Socialist president, said in a Friday statement. “This operation will last as long as necessary.” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “Operation Serval” included the deployment of troops to Bamako to help secure and safeguard the capital and to protect the 6,000 French expatriates living there. Hollande said that France is “prepared to stop the terrorist offensive.”
Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Bouamana accused France of killing civilians during the Konna fighting.
“The hospitals are now filled with the injured. Women, children and the elderly are the main victims,” Bouamana told Al Jazeera. “It’s impossible to know how many have been killed, but the number is huge.”
Britain announced its support for the French intervention in a tweet from Foreign Secretary William Hague. In Washington, the Obama administration also expressed its support for France’s military action.
“We have noted that the government of Mali has asked for support, and we share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven in the region,” White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said on Friday. France has suggested that US unmanned aerial drones could provide valuable surveillance help as the conflict continues.
Washington has had its eye on Mali for some time now, with American military planners working closely with African nations who share the goal of eliminating Islamist militants from the country. “We have sent military planners to ECOWAS (the 15-member Economic Community of West African States) to assist with the continued development and refinement of the plans for international intervention,” Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary for African Affairs, told Bloomberg Business Week. “Any attempt to militarily oust AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) from northern Mali must be African-led,” Carson insisted. “It must be Malian-led.”
Critics accuse the France, the United States and their NATO allies of inadvertently creating a terrorist haven in Mali by ousting Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi from power last year.
“It’s a kind of a supreme irony that the French are being asked to come in and clean up a mess that they themselves helped create by their actions in 2011 in Libya,” Jeff Steinberg, senior editor of the Executive Intelligence Review, told RT.
In Moscow, Russia’s Africa envoy, Mikhail Margelov, slammed France for waging war in Mali.
“African residents aside, no one else can or should solve the continent’s problems,” Margelov asserted. “I understand the current situation in Mali, but I think however that any operation in Africa can and should only be done under the aegis of the UN and the African Union,” he added.
Moscow also called France hypocritical for fighting Islamists in Mali while supporting Syrian rebels who have committed horrific atrocities as they fight to overthrow dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The United Nations last month approved plans for an African-led military intervention in Mali to reunify the nation. The UN Security Council has called for a “swift deployment” of 3,000 troops to accomplish this task.
In the wake of France’s entry into the conflict, neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger announced they would be deploying about 500 troops to fight in a ‘coalition of the willing’ whose goal is the defeat and expulsion of Islamist groups that have controlled northern Mali, including the ancient town of Timbuktu, since last spring. Nigeria and Senegal have also provided support to the Malian government.
The traditionally nomadic Taureg people of northern Mali and Niger are fighting against political marginalization and economic privation at the hands of the Malian government.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an organization fighting for independence for the traditionally nomadic Taureg desert people, has been engaging in periodic revolts for generations. After the last Taureg rebellion failed, many fighters left for Libya where they joined Muammar Gaddafi’s army and, later, the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council (NTC). After NTC fighters, backed by NATO airstrikes, ousted Gaddafi in 2011, many Taureg returned to Mali and swelled the ranks of the MNLA and other anti-government groups. By the spring of 2012, tensions between the MNLA and Ansar Dine led to outright war between the groups, as well as with militants from the Ansar Dine-allied Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). Islamist groups took advantage of the uncertainty caused by a military coup that ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure last March to strike out and seize vast swathes of northern Mali. More than half of the land area of the nation of nearly 16 million is currently under rebel control.
The Malian government accuses the MNLA of having links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a charge denied by MNLA leaders. Ansar Dine, which roughly translates to “defenders of the faith,” does not seek independence but rather the implementation of Sharia law throughout Mali. Ansar Dine adheres to a strict brand of Islam and have imposed Sharia law in the territories they conquer. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have destroyed UN World Heritage sites and exacerbated a refugee crisis in which hundreds of thousands of people have fled.
Mali was a French colony from 1892 until the country achieved independence in 1960.
As France began waging war in Mali, French commandos launched a failed raid in a bid to free a French intelligence operative held captive by Islamist militants in Somalia. Seventeen militants, at least one French commando and the hostage, codenamed Denis Alex, died in the botched nighttime raid against members of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militia in Bulo Marer, 75 miles (120 km) northwest of the capital city of Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab militants claim to have captured a wounded French soldier left behind after the failed mission, and Paris confirms that one of its troops is missing.
Tagged African Union Mali, al-qaeda in the islamic maghreb, al-Shabaab, Amadou Sanogo, Amadou Toumani Toure, Ansar Dine, Ansar Dine World Heritage sites, AQIM, Bamako, Bulo Marer, Burkina Faso, Denis Alex killed, Dioncounda Traore, ECOWAS, Francois Hollande, French intervention in Mali, French raid Somalia, Konna, Mali, Mali coup, Mikhail Margelov, MNLA, MOJWA, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, muammar gaddafi, National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, Niger, Operation Serval, Taureg revolt, Timbuktu, U.S. Mali, United Nations Mali