Jihadis love to set up bases in out-of-the-way places:
(h/t: Daffy Duck)
President Francois Hollande says French troops are taking part in operations against Islamists in northern Mali.
French troops “have brought support this afternoon to Malian units to fight against terrorist elements”, he said.
Armed groups, some linked to al-Qaeda, took control of northern Mali in April.
Mr Hollande said the intervention complied with international law, and had been agreed with Malian President Dioncounda Traore. A state of emergency has been declared across the country.
The militants said on Thursday that they had advanced further into government-controlled territory, taking the strategic central town of Konna.
The Islamists have sought to enforce an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.
Residents in nearby Mopti told the BBC they had seen French troops helping Malian forces prepare for a counter-offensive against the Islamists in Konna.
Mr Hollande said French military action had been decided on Friday morning and would last “as long as necessary”.
“Mali is facing an assault by terrorist elements coming from the north whose brutality and fanaticism is known across the world,” the French president said.
He said Mali’s existence as a state was under threat, and referred to the need to protect its own population and 6,000 French citizens living there. France ruled Mali as a colony until 1960.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the aim of the operation was to stop Islamist militants advancing any further.
“We need to stop the terrorists’ breakthrough, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands threatening all of Africa, and even Europe,” he told reporters.
He confirmed that the French air force was involved in the operation, but gave no details.
France was previously believed to have about 100 elite troops in the region. It also has a military base in Chad.
At least seven French hostages are currently being held in the region, and Mr Fabius said France would “do everything” to save them.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Twitter that the UK supported the French decision to help Mali’s government against northern rebels.
Shortly after Mr Hollande spoke, the west African bloc Ecowas said it was authorising the immediate deployment of troops to Mali “to help the Malian army defend its territorial integrity”, AFP news agency reported.
The Malian army said that as well as French troops, soldiers from Nigeria and Senegal were already in Mali – though Senegal later denied that it had any combat troops in the country, according to AFP.
The UN had previously approved plans to send some 3,000 African troops to Mali to recapture the north if no political solution could be found, but that intervention was not expected to happen until September.
Late on Thursday, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called for the rapid deployment of an African-led force.
The EU also said it would support the rapid deployment of an African-led mission and speed up preparations for a military training mission.
President François Hollande declared that Mali’s very existence was threatened by “terrorist aggression”, adding: “French army forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements.”
The battle came after hundreds of Islamist gunmen struck beyond their stronghold in northern Mali and seized the town of Konna in the central region on Thursday.
This placed them less than 40 miles from Mopti, the last garrison town protecting the road to the capital, Bamako. President Dioncounda Traore of Mali appealed for help from France, the former colonial power, and a counter-attack began Friday with the aim of retaking Konna.
The results of Friday’s air strike were not yet clear.
“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) and its local allies captured three regions of northern Mali last year, gaining control over 300,000 square miles. In the past week, they have begun moving southwards and taking even more territory.
Mr Hollande’s decision to allow the French army to support Malian units could be a change of policy. Despite its permanent military presence in Africa, including a base in neighbouring Senegal, France had previously ruled out deploying combat troops in Mali, promising help with training, logistics and intelligence instead. France has also secured agreement for a plan to send 3,000 African troops to recapture northern Mali in alliance with the national army.
But AQIM’s latest advance has overtaken these efforts. Mr Hollande told the French diplomatic corps that the extremists had “tried to strike a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali”. He said: “France, like its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept that.
“I have decided that France will respond without delay and alongside our partners, to the request of the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly in the framework of UN Security Council resolutions and we are ready to stop the terrorist offensive if it continues.”
British Foreign Minister William Hague said the UK supports the French decision.
Exactly what support the French army is giving to the Malian forces is unclear. An official in Paris noted that France was able to deploy air power in Mali “very quickly”. He added: “When you say that you are ready to intervene, you have to be.”
In recent years, France has launched air strikes against rebels in countries such as Chad and the Central African Republic. The French air force also played a leading role, alongside the RAF, in the Nato air campaign in Libya in 2011.
A C-160 transport plane landed soon after sunset on Thursday in Sevare, a town that neighbours Mopti. Some of the soldiers who disembarked are reported to have been European.
The French foreign ministry has advised all citizens to leave the country unless they have an “essential” reason to stay. However, Mr Hollande’s decisions will be complicated by the fact that AQIM is holding eight French citizens hostage. In all, the group has about a dozen European captives, probably kept in its haven in northern Mali.
This vast region includes airports, arms dumps and military bases. It also lies across a trans-Saharan smuggling route used to run drugs to Europe. About 1.3 million people lived in the area before the AQIM insurgents and rebels from the local Tuareg tribe seized control, with their forces concentrated in the towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Food shortages are acute and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled.
The insurgents have imposed Sharia and desecrated shrines in Timbuktu, claiming that they were idolatrous.
While AQIM is unlikely to mount a frontal assault on Bamako, they could try to infiltrate the capital and subvert it from within.
Western governments fear that the longer they stay in control of northern Mali, the greater the risk that the region will become a centre for organising attacks. African countries would probably be the first targets, but Europe could eventually be threatened. AQIM will also have the opportunity to strengthen its grip over the north. [emphasis added]
Too bad Europeans weren’t thinking along those lines in the 1990s, when they helped the local branches of al Qaeda to establish strongholds in Bosnia, Albania, and Kosovo. The area has served as a smuggling hub, recruiting center, and staging point for jihadi attacks ever since.
- RT: ‘West created conditions for Islamists to take over in Mali’ (h/t: coldwarrior)
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