France sent armed forces into combat in Mali on Friday, answering an urgent plea from the government of its former colony in West Africa to help blunt a sudden and aggressive advance into the center of the country by Islamist extremist militants who have been in control of the north for much of the past year.
French officials confirmed that the French forces, which included paratroopers and helicopter gunships, had engaged in fighting with the Islamists after landing at a major airfield in the central Mali town of Sévaré.
It was unclear how many French troops had been sent or from where, but a Western diplomat in neighboring Niger said the Islamist forces numbered between 800 and 900 fighters, with about 200 vehicles.
“French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian army units to fight against terrorist elements,” President François Hollande of France said in a statement to reporters in Paris. “This operation will last as long as is necessary.”
Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of the American military’s Africa Command, who was traveling in neighboring Niger at the time of the French assault, said he understood that the Islamists had been prevented from advancing further south, and that one French helicopter gunship may have been downed, but there was no confirmation.
“If there was an intent by the bad guys to continue the attack,” General Ham said, “that appears to be been stopped, maybe even slightly reversed.”
He emphasized that initial combat reports were sketchy and incomplete.
General Ham also said the French assault had not been coordinated with the United States, but that the Pentagon was now weighing a broad range of options, including providing enhanced intelligence sharing and logistic support. He said there were now high-level discussions between Washington and Paris, and other Western and African capitals, about further steps.
Mr. Hollande has been especially outspoken in his animosity toward northern Mali’s Islamist occupiers and their harsh practices, which rights activists say include arbitrary killings, stonings, amputations, forced marriages and the destruction of non-Islamist cultural shrines. Thousands of Malians have sought to flee the north in recent months.
“Mali is dealing with terrorist elements form the north, whose brutality and fanaticism are now clear to the entire world,” Mr. Hollande said. “The very existence of the friendly state of Mali is at stake, as is the security of its people and that of our citizens. There are 6,000 of them there.”
The French president was responding to an urgent request received the day before from Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, who said Malian government forces were in dire need of help to stop the Islamists, who have turned the northern half of the country into a militant haven since seizing the territory, about twice of the size of Germany, last April.
The United Nations Security Council, which has repeatedly condemned the Islamist takeover of northern Mali and last month authorized an African-led force to enter the country to help drive the Islamists out, said Thursday that it was closely monitoring events there and may take additional steps. Mr. Hollande is also to meet with the Malian president next week.
The swift French response came after two days of clashes between the Malian Army and militants around Konna, a sleepy mud-brick village that for months had marked the outer limit of the Malian Army’s control after it lost half of the country to the Islamists and their allies eight months ago.
“It’s a very serious situation, very dangerous,” said a Malian officer here in Bamako, the capital, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Islamists had been threatening a major airfield 25 miles away in Sévaré, also the home of a significant army base. And 10 miles from Sévaré is the historic river city of Mopti, the last major town controlled by the Malian government, with a population of more than 100,000.
“There were hard fights, but we lost,” the officer said.
A spokesman for the Islamists, Sanda Ould Boumana, said Thursday from rebel-held Timbuktu: “We have taken the town of Konna. We control Konna, and the Malian Army has fled. We have pushed them back.” This week’s clashes were the first time that the two sides had fought since Islamists and their Tuareg rebel allies conquered the north of Mali last spring, splitting the country in two and leaving the Malian Army in disarray.
For months, the United Nations and Mali’s neighbors have been debating and planning a military campaign to retake the north by force, if necessary, an international push that is supposed to be led by Malian forces. Analysts had previously said that the outcome of this week’s fighting at Konna would be a significant indicator of the army’s fitness to undertake the reconquest of the north.
Malian politicians reacted with shock to news of Konna’s loss.
“This is a very disagreeable surprise. Terrible. A dagger blow,” said Fatoumata Dicko, a deputy in Mali’s Parliament in Bamako. “People are fleeing Sévaré. They think there is nothing to hold the Islamists back.”
Meanwhile, France’s Foreign Ministry advised French nationals to leave Mali after President Francois Hollande said he is ready to take military action in the African country.
The government also warned those planning to travel to Mali to postpone their trips, the ministry said in an advisory published on its website today, Friday.
Action could be taken quickly to halt a renewed offensive by Islamist rebels in northern Mali, Hollande said in a New Year’s greeting to ambassadors in Paris.
Courtesy New York Times, Bloomberg
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