Responding to an urgent plea for help from the Malian government, French troops have begun military operations including air strikes in Mali to contain Islamist groups which are continuing to clash with the army in a fight for control of the desert north of the west African country, according to French officials and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top American military commander in Africa.
The Pentagon is now weighing a broad range of options to support the French effort, including enhanced intelligence-sharing and logistics support, but it is not considering sending American troops, General Ham said.
The sudden introduction of Western troops upends months of tortured debate over how — and when — foreign nations should confront the Islamist seizure of northern Mali. Al-Qaida-linked groups seized the northern two-thirds of Mali last April, a month after a military coup that followed the army’s desertion of a military campaign against Tuareg and Islamist rebels. Western powers fear militants could use the vast desert in the former French colony as a launchpad for international attacks.
“French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian Army units to fight against terrorist elements,” President François Hollande of France said in a statement to reporters in Paris on Friday, noting that the operation would “last as long as necessary.”
“The terrorists should know that France will always be there,” he added.
The foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said France’s air force carried out an air strike in Mali on Friday as it supported government forces.
France said it was acting with the backing of west African states. It had responded to an appeal for military assistance from Mali’s embattled interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, after Islamists seized the town of Konna in the centre of the country, about 375 miles north-east of the capital, Bamako, on Thursday.
The rebel offensive would seem to dispel all hopes of reaching a negotiated solution to the crisis. At the beginning of week, when heavy fighting first broke out in central Mali, peace talks scheduled to begin on Thursday in nearby Burkina Faso were postponed until January 21.
The region where Thursday’s fighting took place is strategically significant. Konna is less than 40 miles from the strategic city and army base of Mopti. Boubakar Hamadoun, editor of the Bamako-based newspaper Mali Demain, who has reporters based in the north, said there were Islamists controlling Konna “but they are integrated into the population”. “It is very difficult for the army to fight them,” he said. “It is a very complicated situation.”
Sources in Mopti reported panic there , with evacuations of women and children, as residents anticipated clashes between Malian and foreign troops and Islamists could reach the town.
If the rebel forces, made up of a coalition of three terror groups, succeed in taking Mopti, the main town in the region and gateway to the north, they will control another stretch of the important national roadway. In Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, the largest cities in the north, the extremists are already more or less dug in, having established defensive positions complete with supply depots and tunnels.
The renewed fighting follows the disintegration of a ceasefire between one of the Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, and the government. It has sparked panic in Mopti and other towns south of the de facto border between government and Islamist control, and prompted concerns in the international community that the Islamist groups – which operate a drug trafficking and kidnap economy in northern Mali and other Sahelian countries – could capture more ground.
The security council condemned the capture of Konna and called on UN member states to provide assistance to Mali “in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups.”
Hollande said recent UN Security Council resolutions provided the legal framework for him to respond to the request.
The very existence of the “friendly” state of Mali was under threat as well as the security of its population and that of 6,000 French expatriates, Hollande warned.
The military operation would last “as long as necessary”, he said. The French parliament will debate the move on Monday.
While senior Malian officers heralded their new military “partners on the ground,” some warned that the Islamists remained strong and could still press forward. “It’s temporary,” said one officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “They have the means to advance.” while senior Malian officers heralded their new military “partners on the ground,” some warned that the Islamists remained strong and could still press forward. “It’s temporary,” said one officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “They have the means to advance.” Holding off the Islamists, moreover, is a far cry from retaking the north.
Still, Western and Malian officials said the French assault had changed the dynamic of the conflict, accelerating plans for a broader military strategy.
France has a long history of expeditionary military actions in its former African colonies. Mr. Hollande had said that France would not send troops into combat in Mali until Friday, when it seemed that the government in Bamako might collapse. But the French had positioned military contingents near Mali, with deployments in Senegal, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast, for example. There were also persistent reports that French special forces were in Mali.