France said it’s sending more jet fighters to target Islamists in northern Mali as part of a push that began two days ago and will continue until the rebel forces are “eradicated.”
“Raids are continuing right now,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said today on Europe 1 radio. “There were raids last night; there will be more this afternoon and tomorrow.”
France and west African states are seeking 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.
The intervention so far has been handled by the 550 French troops in the country, though Le Drian pledged to send reinforcements as necessary. West African nations have pledged to send about 2,000 soldiers to oust the militants, while the U.S. has offered to provide intelligence, logistical support and in-flight refueling for French aircraft. The U.K. is assisting with two Boeing C-17 military cargo aircraft to help transport troops.
“We’re reinforcing and will continue to do so as necessary,” Le Drian said. “The objective, as set out by the United Nations and the African Union, is for Mali to be a sovereign state and for the terrorist groups to be eradicated.”
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. The French effort has destroyed pick-up trucks, arms depots and other sensitive sites, thus far pushing back a rebel offensive in the east of the country while fighting continues in the west.
More than 100 people, including rebels and Malian government soldiers, were killed in yesterday’s fighting, Xinhua said, citing an unidentified Malian military official.
The Islamists, 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.
Kona was quiet early today after a firefight yesterday that killed 11 people and injured 60, according to the Malian government.
“This morning it’s calm, we no longer hear gunfire,” Kona resident Aguibou Cisse said by telephone. Colonel Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali’s military, said the army “controls the situation” there.
While the French action in its former colony will temporarily halt the Islamists’ 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.
Germany, the Netherlands and Spain have offered diplomatic backing and an European Union training mission is planned for Mali’s military.
“The threat is that a terrorist state will be created near Europe and France,” Le Drian said yesterday. “We had to react before it was too late. They won’t succeed. We are determined to prevent this.”
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.
The UN Security Council on Jan. 10 expressed “grave concern” about attacks by “terrorist and extremist groups” in Mali. French President Francois 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 in 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, said Samir Gadio, a London-based emerging-markets strategist at Standard Bank Group Ltd.
“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.
Hollande’s go-alone decision to intervene in Mali without European countries or the U.S. is a sign that there was urgency or the capital of “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.”