French airstrikes sought to halt an offensive by Islamist rebels in northern Mali as west African nations pledged to send about 2,000 soldiers to oust the militants.
France’s intervention in its former colony will last “as long as is needed,” President Francois Hollande said yesterday in a televised speech in Paris. Separately, in Somalia, French special forces failed to free a French intelligence officer who had been held hostage for three years, resulting in his death.
In Mali “France has no other objective than to safeguard a country that is a friend,” Hollande said. “It doesn’t have another goal than fighting terrorism,” and it has the backing of the international community, he said.
France and west African states want to stop Mali from being overrun by the militants, a development they say would give terrorists a base for destabilizing the region and Europe. Rapid progress by the rebels last week prompted France to start military action, almost nine months earlier than most analysts had predicted.
While the French action will temporarily stop the Islamist advance, a larger ground force will have to be sent in to destroy them, said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, managing director of New York-based risk consultancy DaMina Advisors LLP.
“France’s unilateral military action weakens that Africa-led UN mandate for forces and introduces an anti-colonial element to the Islamist fight,” he said yesterday by e-mail. “Ecowas is totally not ready, and France is not willing to keep the commandos on the ground for too long either,” he said, referring to the 15-nation west African economic bloc.
The first contingent of Ecowas troops from Nigeria, Togo, Niger should be in Mali no later than today, Ivorian Integration Minister Ally Coulibaly said by telephone yesterday from Abidjan. Ivory Coast’s president holds the rotating chairmanship of the Economic Community of West African States.
The U.S. is considering providing intelligence, surveillance and logistics support, according to a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday.
The U.K. will give logistical assistance to help transport troops and equipment to Mali, Prime Minister David Cameron told Hollande in a phone call yesterday, according to a statement.
Mali vies with Tanzania to be Africa’s third-biggest gold producer. The landlocked nation is about twice the size of Texas and has a population of about 15.5 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. Life expectancy is about 53 years.
In yesterday’s hostilities, assaults by French helicopters and Mirage fighter jets flying out of Chad destroyed vehicles near the rebel-held town of Kona as well as a command post, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a news conference. A French helicopter pilot was killed in action near the central city of Mopti. Hundreds of French troops were in Bamako, the capital, he said.
More than 100 people, including rebels and Malian government soldiers, were killed in the day’s fighting, Xinhua reported, citing an unidentified Malian military official.
The military operations prompted France to intensify its domestic anti-terror measures. While the threat level remained at “red,” surveillance of public buildings and transport infrastructure was increased, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in an e-mailed statement. Soldiers could be seen yesterday patrolling the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris.
“The situation in Mali is serious and has quickly deteriorated in the past days,” Le Drian said. Terrorist groups “began an offensive in the south of the country that aims to destabilize the whole of Mali,” he said.
UN Security Council
The Islamist rebels, who already control the north of the country, last week began an offensive that captured the town of Kona, 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Mopti, the last Malian military outpost before insurgent-held territory.
“The threat is that a terrorist state will be created near Europe and France,” Le Drian said. “We had to react before it was too late. They won’t succeed. We are determined to prevent this,” he said.
The UN Security Council on Jan. 10 expressed “grave concern” about attacks by “terrorist and extremist groups” in Mali. Hollande said France’s military actions are covered by a Dec. 21 Security Council resolution that approved a west African military operation to retake the north.
Nigeria has already sent Major General U. Abdulkadri, who will lead the Ecowas force, and an air force technical team to Mali, Reuben Abati, a spokesman for President Goodluck Jonathan, said by telephone yesterday. The country plans to deploy about 600 soldiers to Mali.
Burkina Faso plans to contribute 500 soldiers, Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole said in a statement handed to reporters today in the capital, Ouagadougou.
Malian Interim President Dioncounda Traore, backed by governments in neighboring countries, asked for the French intervention. Other European countries support France’s military action, named Operation Serval after an African wild cat, though they aren’t participating, Le Drian said.
Islamist groups including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s north African unit, along with Touareg separatists, took control of an area of northern Mali the size of France after a military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo in March.
The French presence improves the viability of the civilian transitional government, Samir Gadio, a London-based emerging-markets strategist at Standard Bank Group Ltd. said.
“It effectively undermines the power base of Captain Sanogo and his associates in the Malian army now that foreign troops are on the ground,” Gadio said in an e-mailed reply to questions yesterday.
Also yesterday, French special forces operating in Somalia failed to free a French intelligence officer who had been held for more than three years. Hostage Denis Allex was “undoubtedly” killed along with two French soldiers during the operation, Hollande said. Earlier in the day, Defense Minister Le Drian had said 17 captors were killed during the mission while one French soldier was killed and another had disappeared.
According to an e-mailed statement from al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabaab, French troops in five helicopters attacked a house in the town of Bulomarer based on inaccurate information that the hostage was there. Allex, they said, was in a location far from the assault and his fate will be announced by tomorrow. The group also said it had captured a French soldier.
Allex was an operative with France’s intelligence agency, known by its French acronym DGSE, Le Drian said. He was on assignment with Somalia’s transitional federal government when he was kidnapped from a Mogadishu hotel on July 14, 2009, France’s national day, according to the Defense Ministry.
In Mali, Hollande is also grappling with the capture of six French hostages in the desert that runs between Mali and Niger. The rebels pushing south in Mali are the same people holding the captives, whose “lives are threatened,” according to Le Drian. Efforts to free them continue.
Hollande’s go-alone decision to intervene in Mali without European countries or the U.S. is a sign that there was urgency or “Bamako would have fallen,” Jean-Pierre Maulny, a deputy director at the Institute For International and Strategic Relations in Paris, said on BFM TV. “France may put a very small number of special forces on the ground to fight but this isn’t a major intervention.”