• France's news in English
 
app_header_v3

French troops close in on Mali Islamists

AFP · 16 Jan 2013, 11:08

Published: 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.

Story continues below…

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.

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
14,000 pregnant women in France took 'birth defect drug'
Dépakine has been linked to an increased risk of various congenital defects. File photo: AFP

Health authorities have been criticized for their slow reaction to warnings that Dépakine can be dangerous during pregnancy.

How to keep cool during France's heatwave
Photo: AFP

Almost all of France is on a heatwave alert. Here's how to keep cool.

Heatwave warnings extended yet again as France bakes
Photo: AFP

The national weather agency has issued orange alerts to a further 23 départements.

Paris warned about high level of ozone pollution
Photo: AFP

Free parking on Thursday to fight the high pollution levels.

French Muslim body to talk burqini ban with government
Photo: AFP

The French Council of Muslims has called an urgent meeting with the interior minister citing a "fear of stigmatization of Muslims in France".

Where to go in France to find the best ice cream
Be quick - it's a scorcher of a summer in France this year. Photo: AFP

The tastiest way to get through the heatwave.

French schools to ramp up security with 'mock attacks'
Photo: AFP

French schools will soon be forced to stage simulated attacks in a bid to prepare children for potential terror attacks, among other measures.

French police 'force woman to remove burqini' on beach
A file photo of a woman in a burqini. Photo: AFP

Pictures have emerged showing armed police officers in southern France apparently forcing a woman to remove her burqini.

Déja vu? Familiar faces in France's presidential race
President Hollande, who hasn't yet announced if he will run, and Nicolas Sarkozy, who is eyeing up the top job next year. Photo: AFP

France is yearning for political renewal, but looks set to be stuck with familiar faces in the presidential race.

Frenchman 'kills Brit in stabbing rampage' in Australia
Photo: AFP

A Frenchman allegedly killed a British woman and stabbed three others in an Australian backpacker's hostel.

Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
Society
Here's how to enjoy Paris (while avoiding the heat)
Sponsored Article
5 reasons to try dating in Paris with The Inner Circle
Society
Ten mistakes to avoid when dating a Frenchman
Society
Twelve 'French' things that aren't actually French at all
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
'World's priciest home' on sale in French Riviera for €1 billion
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
Lifestyle
RECIPE: How to make the tastiest ratatouille
National
Paris sees Europe's biggest plunge in 'liveability'
National
Life on the home front in rural France's 'war on terror'
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Features
Weird facts you didn't know about the French language
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Society
Paris foodie event cancelled over lack of security
How to tackle six of the trickiest French verbs
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
National
Summer in France - 'the ideal time to find a job'
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
National
'Burqini bans will only divide France more'
National
French vineyards revive horse-drawn ploughs
Sponsored Article
Jordan Pass: your ticket to the experience of a lifetime
French mayor bans Pokemon Go app from his village
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
National
'To boycott France is to surrender to terrorists'
Sponsored Article
6 reasons expats use TransferWise to send money
Travel
21 photos to make you want to come to France right now
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Society
This is how much the French are obsessed with cheese
National
French MP's call for Facebook ID cards blasted 'as idiotic'
Travel
Summer checklist: Fourteen great travel ideas for France
Travel
Here's why France is still world's top tourist destination
'Wealthy American tourists' snub France over terror fears
National
Where to go swimming in France (and where to avoid)
Society
23 subtle signs you'll never quite master French
2,741
jobs available