January 13, 2013 in Nation/World

French troops push rebels in Mali back

Islamists have taken country’s northern half
Rukmini Callimachi And Baba Ahmed Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

French soldiers board a plane in Chad on Friday, heading to Bamako, Mali. The battle to retake Mali’s north from al-Qaida-linked groups began in earnest Saturday.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The French in Africa

France has a history of intervention in Africa, where it was a colonial power for decades and still maintains several military sites and has hundreds of troops across the continent, including Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon.

MALI

January 2013: French helicopter gunships and fighter jets struck at Islamist fighters in Mali at the request of Mali’s president, after the rebels began seizing territory well to the south of the strongholds they had held for the previous nine months.

January 2011: Two French hostages were killed on the Niger-Mali border by their captors as French rescue forces closed in.

SOMALIA

January 2013: A French commando was killed and another missing after a failed raid to rescue an intelligence agent held hostage in Somalia for more than three years.

April 2009: French commandos stormed a sailboat off the Somali coast to rescue hostages held by pirates. One hostage was killed and four were freed in the operation.

IVORY COAST

April 2011: French tanks and helicopters backed Ivory Coast troops trying to oust Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to leave power after disputed elections. A French armored advance in Abidjan allowed troops for Alassane Ouattara to secure the city and take Gbagbo into custody.

November 2004: French troops fought soldiers from Ivory Coast and French jets all but destroyed the West African country’s air force after its warplanes killed at least nine French peacekeepers and an American civilian.

LIBYA

March 2011: France was a leading force in the NATO operation against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in 2011. Then-President Nicolas Sarkozy sent French jets to target Gadhafi’s forces after pressing for a no-fly zone.

CHAD

April 2006: France provided intelligence to government forces of President Idriss Deby. The intelligence allowed Deby to keep power against a rebel force that threatened to seize control of the nation.

BAMAKO, Mali – The battle to retake Mali’s north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists.

At the same time, nations in West Africa authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September.

The decision to begin the military operation was taken after the fighters, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, decided last week to push even farther south to the town of Konna, coming within 30 miles of Mopti, the first town held by the government and a major base for the Malian military.

Many believe that if Mopti were to fall, the Islamists could potentially seize the rest of the country, dramatically raising the stakes. The potential outcome was “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday.

France scrambled Mirage fighter jets from a base in neighboring Chad, as well as combat helicopters beginning the aerial assault on Friday. They have also sent in hundreds of troops to the front line, as well as to secure the capital. In just 24 hours, French forces succeeded in dispersing the Islamists from Konna, the town the fighters had seized in a bold advance earlier in the week, Le Drian said.

Malian military officials said they were now conducting sweeps, looking for snipers.

“A halting blow has been delivered, and heavy losses have been inflicted on our adversaries, but our mission is not complete,” French President Francois Hollande said after meeting with his defense chiefs in Paris. “I reiterate that it consists of preparing the deployment of an African intervention force to allow Mali to recover its territorial integrity.”

However, in a sign of how hard the battle ahead may be, the extremists succeeded in shooting down a French helicopter, the defense minister confirmed. The pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated. The Islamists are using arms stolen from ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s arsenal, as well as the weapons abandoned by Mali’s military when they fled their posts in the face of the rebel advance.

The Islamists have vowed to retaliate against French interests, and they claim to have sleeper cells in all of the capitals of the West African nations who are sending troops. Hollande announced that he had raised France’s domestic terror threat level.

Online in jihadist forums, participants called for fighters to attack French interests in retaliation for the air raids. They discussed possible targets, including the French Embassy in neighboring Niger, according to a transcript provided by Washington-based SITE Intelligence.

The sudden military operation is a reversal of months of debate over whether Western powers should get involved in a military bid to oust the militants, who took advantage of a coup in Mali’s capital in March to capture the north. As recently as December, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned against a quick military operation.

All of that went out the window last week when the fighters pushed south from the town of Douentza, which demarcated their line of control, located 540 miles from the capital. By Thursday, they had succeeded in pushing another 72 miles south, bringing them nearly face-to-face with the ill-equipped and ill-trained Malian military in a showdown that couldn’t be ignored by the international community.

© Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email