French forces battled Islamist militants in Mali for a fourth day as a rebel spokesman said the intervention had opened the “gates of hell.”
The insurgents are in retreat after French air strikes on the eastern edge of the front line between government- and rebel-controlled territory, France’s defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told reporters after a meeting of the inner “war Cabinet.” The situation is “evolving favorably,” he said, adding that the Islamist militants are “extremely well armed.”
A 550-strong contingent of French air and ground forces has been carrying out attacks since Jan. 11 against militants based in the north who went on the offensive last week. They pushed the insurgents out of Kona, a town about 700 kilometers (435 miles) north of the capital, Bamako, hours after President Francois Hollande announced that France would support Mali’s battle to win back two-thirds of its territory.
European and U.S. policy makers have said they are concerned northern Mali may become an Islamist militant base to strike international targets and destabilize regional countries from Algeria to Nigeria. France has sought various forms of assistance from allies including the U.S., U.K., and Canada.
European Union foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting this week on Mali, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said today. The EU will consider possible backing including rapid deployment of military trainers, logistical assistance and other “direct support,” Ashton said in a statement.
Canada will send a military transport plane to support an international mission in Mali following a request from France, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement. The British government is assisting with two Boeing C-17 military cargo aircraft to help transport troops, Defense Minister Andrew Robathan told Parliament in London today.
U.S. military assistance is likely to be limited to logistics and intelligence support, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
“It’s basically in three areas we’re looking at,” Panetta told reporters today en route to Lisbon, where he is beginning a visit to European capitals. “One is, provide limited logistical support; two, provide intelligence support; and three, provide some airlift capabilities.”
The rebels seized the north of Africa’s third-biggest gold producer after government soldiers overthrew the government in March. The army said it wasn’t adequately equipped or trained to take on the Islamists, who benefited from arms flowing into Mali from the 2011 war in Libya.
France “has fallen in a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,” Omar Hamaha, a spokesman for the Islamist militants in northern Mali who’s known as the “Red Beard” for his henna-tinted facial hair, told French radio station Europe1. “And it’s only started.”
One French soldier, a helicopter pilot, has been killed since operations began, while the rebels have lost “a significant number of partisans,” Le Drian said yesterday.
At least 13 international companies were engaged in gold exploration and production in Mali in 2010, according to a U.S. Geological Survey Report. Output of the metal for the country was 36,344 kilograms the same year.
The Mali operations of AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. (ANG), Africa’s biggest gold producer, are all in the south or southeast and not close to the fighting, Alan Fine, a spokesman for the company, said in an e-mail. The company’s Morila mine, which it co-owns with Randgold Resources Ltd. (RRS) and the government, produced more than a third of Mali’s output in 2010, according to the USGS.
Four French Rafale jet fighters hit several targets near the northern city of Gao, including rebel training camps, infrastructure and logistics depots, the Defense Ministry in Paris said yesterday in a statement.
“The Mirages that bombed Gao were at 13,000 meters up; come down to earth if you are men,” Hamaha said. “We’ll receive them with open arms.”
Militants recaptured the town of Diabaly, Le Drian said.
“We recorded material and human losses,” Mali’s defense ministry communications adviser, Colonel Diarran Kone, said today in a phone interview. “The fighting will continue until we get good results.”
Mali is led by interim President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of the March coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.
Mali ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality. Its $10.6 billion economy contracted 4.5 percent last year and is forecast to expand 3 percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund, slower than the sub-Saharan African outlook of 5.25 percent.
Mali’s own army failed to defeat the fighters from Islamist groups including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s north African unit. They and Touareg separatists are spread across an area the size of France itself.
“We had to act very quickly,” Le Drian said yesterday. “It would have been the total destruction of the Malian state.” He described the insurgents as a mix of “Islamic terrorists and gangsters, including arms traffickers.”
The Economic Community of West African States yesterday sent Nigerian Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir to Bamako to head the group’s intervention force, Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the community’s president, told reporters today in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. By the time Ecowas defense chiefs meet in Bamako tomorrow, the first troops will be on the ground, he said. Ecowas has agreed to send as many as 3,300 soldiers.
“We are taking all steps so that this deployment can be effective as soon as possible,” Ouedraogo said.
France’s forces will remain in Mali until the West African force has been formed and retaken the north, Le Drian said today on BFM TV.
The Security Council last month backed an Ecowas plan to restore state control over the north. The intervention was initially set for September.
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