• 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

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.

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Foreign students worth €1.6 billion to France
International students are worth a lot of money to France. Photo:Tulane Public Relations/Flickr

Foreign students worth €1.6 billion to France

The tens of thousands of international students who come to France each year are giving the country’s economy a healthy boost, a new study has revealed. It's partly in thanks to all the money they shell out just to be able to afford to live here. READ  

French crooks boosted as wiretap firms strike
French phone tapping firms go on strike. Photo: Spying photo

French crooks boosted as wiretap firms strike

French criminals likely breathed a sigh of relief this week when the four firms that carry out most court-ordered phone wiretaps in France refused to take on any new jobs after a bitter dispute with the justice ministry. READ  

The Local List
Ten inventions you could curse the French for
Not every invention that has come out of France has been positive. Photo: Invention: Shutterstock

Ten inventions you could curse the French for

Some great inventions have come out of France over the years, not least the scented-flatulence pills, but there are also a fair few we think the world perhaps could have done without. Here's 10 creations you could curse the French for inventing. READ  

Pop-artist Koons opens Paris retrospective
US pop artist Jeff Koons gestures in front of his BMW Art Car decorated with exploding, multi-colored rays on June 2, 2010 during a press conference at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Photo: Fred Dufour

Pop-artist Koons opens Paris retrospective

The Pompidou Centre in Paris opened on Wednesday a major retrospective of the works of Jeff Koons, the controversial American master of kitsch and the world’s highest paid living artist. READ  

Europe takes France to task over disputed dam
Police clash with protesters at the disputed Sivens dam in south western France. Photo: Florine Galeorn/AFP

Europe takes France to task over disputed dam

The European Commission launched legal action against France on Wednesday over a controversial dam project that saw a young protester killed by a police grenade last month. READ  

High heels bring out best in men: French study
Women wearing high heels have a positive effect on men, says a French scientist. Photo: Shutterstock

High heels bring out best in men: French study

Men are more likely to be inspired to help women who are wearing high heel shoes, a French scientist has concluded after carrying-out a first-of-its-kind study. READ  

Wikipedia seeks help to explain French cheese
Know a thing or two about French cheese? Then read on. Photo: Shutterstock

Wikipedia seeks help to explain French cheese

Internet site Wikipedia has asked cheese-lovers to help it explain France’s dizzying array of fromages by sending in photos to help cheese-lovers distinguish their Cantals from their Roqueforts. READ  

French parents 'forced child to eat faeces'
The court heard how the couple had treated the children 'like animals'. Photo: Vasileios Karafillidis/ Shutterstock

French parents 'forced child to eat faeces'

A French court has sentenced a couple to two years in prison for abusing their two young sons, repeatedly punishing them with brutal methods and at one point, forcing one of them to eat his own excrement. READ  

France set for warmest year since 1900
France is set for its warmest year since 1900. But it may not be time to celebrate. Photo: Shutterstock

France set for warmest year since 1900

France looks set to record its hottest year since 1900 with average temperatures in the first ten months of the year the highest for over a century. Only a very cold December would stop records being broken. READ  

Letter from Camus to Sartre found in France
French writer Albert Camus, whose letter to Jean-Paul Sartre has been discovered. Photo: AFP

Letter from Camus to Sartre found in France

A previously unknown letter between two of France's most famous writers, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, has been discovered after having been kept in a frame above an autograph collector's fireplace since the 1970s. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Win a €250 voucher for your Christmas list
National
A pill to make flatulence smell like roses? A Frenchman has cracked it
Culture
Rare 400-year-old Shakespeare work found in northern France
National
Paris air pollution: 'It's like being in a room with eight smokers'
National
From infidelity to sexual needs: How French women have changed in 30 years
National
Billboards to be replaced by trees - the bold move by one French city
Gallery
French government gives 10 reasons to be proud: No. 1 - The Economy
Politics
France's 'first ladies': A look back at the other halves
National
Would background music make the RER in Paris feel safer?
Sponsored Article
Shop Christmas gifts at Debenhams international store
National
Trierweiler to break her silence... in the UK
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Winter is coming to the French Alps
Gallery
Don't confuse France with Paris: Here's ten reasons why
Sponsored Article
Live like a local - anywhere in the world
National
From the homeless to migrants: A portrait of modern France in ten stats
Culture
Are you brainy enough to be Miss France? Take the quiz
Gallery
France's most notorious celebrities. How many do you know?
Society
City of Love? Seven Paris myths debunked
Education
Why is France worst in the EU at English?
National
C'est pas possible! Paris is 'world's cheapest city for young people'
National
Looking to save space? France allows toilets in kitchens for first time
National
Find out how women in France are getting stung for a hidden tax
Culture
Which one is your favourite? The top 10 heartiest French winter dishes
Face Of The Week
Nabilla - 'France's Kim Kardashian' held for attempted murder
National
So who's scaring everyone by flying drones over France’s nuclear plants?
Education
Whoever thinks French was a dying language should read this
Politics
OPINION: 'One day France will be grateful to François Hollande'
Gallery
IN IMAGES: A history of France's most controversial architecture
National
How to make an 8-square-metre Paris apartment perfectly liveable
Gallery
VIDEO: France's raunchiest TV ads, including that infamous Perrier one
National
Five reasons why you should work a ski season in France and five not to
National
10 art exhibitions not to miss this autumn in Paris
Culture
What's on in France: 11 things to do this November
National
How French have you become? Take our quiz to find out
National
10 things to never say to a French person
National
Top 10: When French translations go wrong
National
Parisian bars that serve drinkers free meals
National
France falls to Germans in nude swim tourney
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Nowhere combines sex and art quite like France
National
Why you should never turn down an invitation to a French wedding
Sport
Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France. There are a few surprises
Gallery
Ten changes that would make learning French so much easier
Culture
IN PICTURES: 'Glass ship' Vuitton ready to set sail in Paris
International
How a giant 'sex toy' earned an American artist a slap in Paris
National
'Unlike in the US the French don't put the blame on the poor'
Gallery
Cover up and don't be too Latin: French travel warnings for the US
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