• France edition
 
French troops close in on Mali Islamists
French soldiers stand on an armoured vehicle as they leave the Malian capital Bamako. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

French troops close in on Mali Islamists

Published: 16 Jan 2013 11:08 GMT+01:00
Updated: 16 Jan 2013 11:08 GMT+01:00

French armoured units and Malian government forces were heading towards the town of Diabaly, which Al Qaeda-linked groups seized earlier this week even as French gunships and fighter jets pounded their strongholds further north.

"Several hundred Malian and French soldiers left Niono (south of Diabaly) to take" back the town, said a local government official in Niono, while a security source announced plans to "take back Diabaly with the French."

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian simply confirmed that ground troops had begun their ground offensive on the sixth day of the former colonial power's intervention in Mali but was short on specifics.

He admitted however that the 800 troops already deployed in Mali faced a long and tough battle against determined fighters whose number he estimated at up to 1,300.

"It's a little more difficult in the west, where we have the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups. It's underway there but it's difficult," he said.

French President Francois Hollande said his forces would crush the jihadist militia.

"What do we plan to do with the terrorists? Destroy them. Capture them, if possible," he said on Tuesday during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

On Tuesday, French soldiers drove out of the capital Bamako in around 30 armoured vehicles. Another convoy was also seen leaving Bamako in a northerly direction.

A company of 190 African troops is expected to arrive in Mali Wednesday, part of a Nigerian contribution that will eventually total 900.

Nigeria is leading the regional force, to which Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged numbers.

West African army chiefs in Bamako were expected to resume talks on Wednesday on the roll-out of the UN-mandated, 3,300-strong regional intervention force in the former French colony.

Mali has been effectively split in two since March 2012, when Islamists took advantage of a short-lived coup in Bamako and an offensive launched by Tuareg separatists in the north to seize half of the country.

Western countries had voiced fears that Mali's north -- a desert region larger than France -- could become Al-Qaeda's leading global safe haven and be used to launch attacks on targets in Europe.

France had repeatedly ruled out a direct military intervention until Islamist fighters pushed further south last week and were seen as threatening the capital Bamako.

Le Drian said France -- whose surprise intervention was lauded by its allies but has so far attracted limited Western military commitment -- would eventually boost its presence to 2,500 men.

President Francois Hollande stressed however that French troops would not be in Mali for good but would stay until security had been restored and the "terrorists" eliminated.

Hollande will chair a cabinet meeting on the crisis on Wednesday, while Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault attends a parliamentary debate on the intervention. Political reaction at home has been largely supportive.

'Jihadists in it for the long haul'

Since France launched its air offensive on January 11th, Islamists have fled key northern stronghold towns, including ones where they had imposed their brutal version of Islamic law.

But analysts have warned the withdrawal was likely a tactical move.

"The jihadists are in it for the long-haul. They are comfortable in this situation: the vast desert, a difficult terrain, a precarious security situation," said Tunisian Islamist expert Alaya Allani.

One resident in the northern town of Gao reported that the Islamists had cut telecommunication links late on Tuesday, rendering land lines and mobile phones useless.

"They accuse residents of giving information to the (French) soldiers," he told AFP by satellite phone.

The UN and aid agencies have also expressed fears for civilians caught up in the conflict.

So far 144,500 refugees have fled the unrest to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, the UN humanitarian agency said on Tuesday, while another 230,000 were internally displaced.

French diplomats and aid agencies plan to meet in Paris and Bamako this week to address the challenge.

Belgium offered two C-130 transport planes and two helicopters to back up France's offensive, while Britain and Canada have offered troop transporters. Germany is considering logistical or humanitarian support.

Hollande met Tuesday with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who raised the possibility of participating in the Mali operation, according to the French president's entourage.

Hollande also intimated that Chad and the United Arab Emirates could take part. However, Qatar and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, of which Mali is a member, have urged dialogue instead of military intervention.

At home, France has deployed 700 troops in and around Paris, indicating mounting concern over potential reprisal attacks.

Mali's militant Islamists have warned France has "opened the doors of hell" by unleashing its warplanes and called on fellow extremists to hit back on French soil.

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Paying ransoms
France 'world’s top payer' of ransoms for hostages
Did France pay a ransom to free four hostages who spent three years in captivity. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

France 'world’s top payer' of ransoms for hostages

France has paid out €58 million to free hostages since 2008, putting it top of the world rankings for ransom payments, according to a media report. Although the French government has angrily denied the claims, critics says the policy is creating a lucrative hostage industry. READ  

Tired French burglar falls asleep during break-in
A sleeping French burglar woke up to the police. Photo: Quinn.anya/Flickr

Tired French burglar falls asleep during break-in

A suspected burglar took a nap while robbing a house in France this week and when he woke up the police were waiting for him. It’s just the latest case of criminals choosing an inopportune time to nod off. READ  

Nudity on the beaches of France: Dos and don'ts
Here's what you need to know about getting naked on French beaches. Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP

Nudity on the beaches of France: Dos and don'ts

France is world famous for its topless and nudist beaches, even if French ladies are increasingly keeping their swim suits on. Here’s what you need to know about dropping your top (or bottoms) on French beaches. READ  

Peeing man drowns after being pushed into Seine
Police are looking for whoever pushed a man from behind into the River Seine, leading to him drowning. Photo: Dany13/Flickr

Peeing man drowns after being pushed into Seine

A man drowned in the River Seine early on Wednesday in Paris after he was pushed into the water from behind while he was peeing, French media reported. Police aren’t sure if it was a prank gone wrong or a violent reprisal. READ  

France pulls French and British out of Libya
Libyan security services and civilians gather across the street after a car bomb attack on the French embassy in Tripoli, Libya on April 23rd, 2013. Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP

France pulls French and British out of Libya

The French government announced on Wednesday that it had pulled around 50 French and British nationals out of Libya. Paris's decision to evacuate its nationals comes amid a rise in violence in the strife-torn North African country. READ  

'Museum shooter' faces terrorism murder charge
Terror-related murder charges have been filed against a Frenchman for the Belgian museum killings. Photo: AFP

'Museum shooter' faces terrorism murder charge

Prosecutors have charged a Frenchman with "murder in a terrorist context" for the attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium that left four people dead. The suspect spent a year fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria before returning to Europe. READ  

French sites pillaged by wannabe archaeologist
A Frenchman is in a big trouble for using his metal detector to 'pillage' archaeological sites. Photo: Jesshg/Flickr

French sites pillaged by wannabe archaeologist

A wannabe archaeologist is on trial in France accused of looting some of the country’s best historical sites after being caught with thousands of ancient artifacts. Experts say France is facing an epidemic of archaeological pillaging. READ  

French celebrate freedom from hungry tax man
French workers are now free from the tax man until the end of the year, according to an economic study. Photo: AFP

French celebrate freedom from hungry tax man

French workers can now celebrate being free from the burden of the tax man because for the rest of the year, they won’t pay another cent in taxes, an economic study claims. The Belgians however still have a bit of work to do. READ  

Gaza crisis
Jewish groups call for Pro-Israel march in Paris
Up to 6,000 pro-Israel protesters march through Marseille. Paris will see its own pro-Israel march take place on Thursday. Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP.

Jewish groups call for Pro-Israel march in Paris

France’s main Jewish organisation has appealed to all the “friends of Israel” to turn out for a rally outside the Israeli embassy in Paris on Thursday. It comes as Muslim groups call for a right-wing Jewish militant organisation to be banned in France. READ  

Air France strike set to hit holidaymakers
Travellers set for disruption after Air France staff called a strike for Saturday. Photo:Shutterstock

Air France strike set to hit holidaymakers

Air France flights to and from France are set to be severely disrupted on Saturday after several unions called on workers to go on strike. The industrial action could cause misery for many holidaymakers. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Culture
Why are the days of going topless in France coming to an end?
Travel
Reckless or adventurous? US dad takes his two children up Mont Blanc
National
From manure to money: Ten bizarre facts about the French Parliament
Culture
Tourists picnic with rats in Louvre gardens
International
Is France really Europe's biggest public spenders?
National
Could your job in France soon be done by a robot?
National
Why you should think twice about feeding stray cats in France
National
And the new redrawn map of France will look like...?
Politics
Is French President François Hollande about to tie the knot?
International
Want a long-term visa? You may soon have to take a French test
International
Votes for foreigners: 'France would be giving up its sovereignty'
National
VIDEO: Stuntman jumps onto a moving Paris metro... and survives
Gallery
Forget 'faire l'amour', here's 15 top French expressions for making love
National
Report - 'Anti-Semitic' riots in France: 'We may leave for Israel'
National
Paris Plages: Here's 10 reasons to head down to the city beach
International
'Mont Blanc is like Disneyland. It's time to end the free-for-all'
Travel
Fancy climbing Mont Blanc? Here's 10 reasons to think twice about it
Gallery
Looking for a weird museum in Paris? Here's 10 that are worth a visit
National
Clear your head: Eight tips for buying wine in a French supermarket
National
'Don't blame the labour market for France's unemployment woes!'
National
Job applicants in France: Be prepared to send in an anonymous CV
Sport
'Bouligans' to booze bans: Ten things you need to know about pétanque
Gallery
Driving in France: How to stay out of trouble on the roads
Sponsored Article
CurrencyFair: Why it pays when making overseas transfers
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se