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MALI

US increases backing for France in Mali

The United States will provide transport planes to French forces fighting Islamist militants in Mali but has yet to decide if it will offer refueling tankers for French warplanes, officials said Thursday.

US increases backing for France in Mali
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a Washington D.C. press conference on January 17th, where she confirmed the extension of US help to French operations in Mali. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP

"We've agreed to help the French with airlift. And we're now working out the details," a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

However, there was still no final approval on a request from Paris to help refuel French warplanes with American tanker aircraft, he and another defense official said.

The US government had already agreed to bolster intelligence sharing to assist the French, including information from surveillance drones and spy satellites, officials said. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed the move to put intelligence resources and transport planes at the disposal of French troops.

"We are supporting the French operation in Mali with intelligence and airlift," she said in Washington after meeting Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The American transport planes would likely be used to ferry French tanks, armored vehicles and other heavy equipment.

The United States has a vast fleet of military transport planes at a network of bases in Europe and elsewhere, along with refueling tankers, which are in increasingly short supply in France and other NATO countries.

'Every time I turn around, I face a group of lawyers.'

Since the French launched its armed intervention last week against advancing Islamist fighters in Mali, President Barack Obama's administration has hesitated to give a green light to logistical support, partly due to a policy dilemma.

Since Malian military officers staged a coup last March, the US administration had suspended any direct aid to the new leadership until democracy was fully restored.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta referred to legal considerations when he was asked by reporters about Washington's deliberations on delivering assistance to the French. 

"One thing I've learned is every time I turn around, I face a group of lawyers. And it's no different now," Panetta said Wednesday during a visit to Rome.

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TERRORISM

‘Terrorists’ attack French soldiers in troubled Mali

French soldiers operating in troubled northern Mali were targeted by "terrorists" in an ambush on Sunday, the third attack in the country in just days.

'Terrorists' attack French soldiers in troubled Mali
Smoke and flames ascend from an army armoured vehicle in Gao, northwestern Mali, following an explosion on Sunday. Photo: STRINGER / AFP
The ambush underscores the fragile security situation in the West African nation as it prepares to go to the polls on July 29th.
 
A spokesman for the French military said there were no deaths among the French troops but it was not known if there were other casualties in the attack, which took place in the restive Gao region.
 
“French soldiers of the Barkhane military operation were ambushed by terrorists” near the town of Bourem, a Western military source told AFP, referring to the French mission in the country. 
 
A Malian military source confirmed the incident, which came two days after a deadly attack on the Mali headquarters of a five-nation regional force known as G5 Sahel.
 
Fatouma Wangara, a resident of Gao, said the French convoy was clearly targeted by a suicide car bomb.
 
“An armoured vehicle blocked the way and the car blew up,” she said.
 
Another resident told AFP that the area around the ambush had been sealed off by French soldiers.
 
The attack came as over 40 African heads of state are meeting for an African Union summit in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott with security high on the agenda.
 
'Hit the heart' of regional security
 
On Friday, a suicide attack on the headquarters of the regional Sahel force known as G5 killed two soldiers and a civilian in the Malian town of Savare. The Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, claimed Friday's bombing in a telephone call to the Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar. And on Saturday, four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in the central Mopti region.
 
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose country is part of the G5 and is hosting the two-day AU summit, warned earlier that security failings were hampering the work of the Sahel force. He said Friday's attack “hit the heart” of the region's security and lashed out at a lack of international help.
 
The G5 aims to have a total of 5,000 troops from five nations — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — but has faced funding problems. It operates alongside France's 4,000 troops in the troubled “tri-border” area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and alongside the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.
 
Mali's unrest stems from a 2012 ethnic Tuareg separatist uprising, which was exploited by jihadists in order to take over key cities in the north. The extremists were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.  But large stretches of the country remain out of the control of the foreign and Malian forces, which are frequent targets of attacks, despite a peace accord signed with Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.
 
The violence has also spilled over into both Burkina Faso and Niger.