France and Mali
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|Joseph Bamat||January 16th 2013|
French special forces began fighting on the ground with Islamist rebels in central Mali on Wednesday, according to regional security sources, six days after the European power launched an air offensive in the country. “The special forces are currently in Diabaly, engaged in fighting with the Islamists. The Malian army is also on site,” the AFP news agency quoted a Malian security source as saying.
French troops closed in on Islamist-controlled areas earlier on Wednesday, in the first stage of a ground offensive that President François Hollande called “both necessary and legitimate” and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned would be “long”. A column of around 30 armoured vehicles set out on Tuesday for the town of Diabaly, some 350km to the north of the capital of Bamako.
In an annual address to the French press Wednesday, Hollande said France’s intervention was necessary to stop Islamists, and had the full backing of Europe and the United Nations. “France will not be alone,” he said, addressing fears that France has been abandoned on the battlefield by Western powers. Earlier, Le Drian acknowledged to RTL radio that the joint French-Malian offensive to retake the country’s north from jihadist militants had already encountered “difficult” moments. “It’s a little more difficult in the west, where we find groups that are the toughest, most fanatical, better organised, more determined and well equipped. There the operation is on its way, but it’s going to be difficult,” he said. French forces stepped into the Malian conflict last Friday to halt an Islamist advance on Bamako.
On Tuesday, France said that it had 800 soldiers deployed in Mali and would build up to a 2,500-strong force. These will be complemented by a multinational African force of more than 3,000 men, which is due to begin deploying later this week. Le Drian said they were facing around 1,300 jihadists fighters based in the northern half of the country.
Konna and Diabaly in French sights
In a press conference on Tuesday night, Le Drian said that the town of Konna had not been completely recaptured from jihadists, as the Malian army had previously announced. The fall of Konna on January 10th prompted the French intervention, which has now entered a sixth day. Analysts said the first ground battles would likely concentrate around Konna and Diabaly, which fell to an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group on Monday. Islamists have vowed to strike back at France for its intervention in Mali, saying it would attack the former colonial power on its own soil. In the main northern Mali town of Gao, the site of intense French air strikes for the past five days, jihadists have reportedly cut telephone lines. The AFP news agency reported that the rebels were concerned residents were sharing information with the French and Malian military.
Joseph Bamat writes for France24 from where this article is adapted.