France Joins Fight in Mali Against Islamist Militants

French military forces intervened in support of the Malian army to stem a renewed offensive by Islamist rebels in the northern part of the West African nation, President Francois Hollande said.

The Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, today ordered the early deployment of a multinational African-led force approved by the United Nations to help Mali’s military, the 15-nation group said in an e-mailed statement.

“We are defending a population under threat,” Hollande said in a one-minute televised statement late yesterday. “The French forces will remain as long as necessary.”

Hollande didn’t say whether the intervention involved ground or air operations. In a later press conference, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the French Air Force conducted raids and wouldn’t confirm whether French forces were involved.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian talked yesterday with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, according to an American defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the diplomatic nature of the conversation. The French have asked for support and U.S. officials are weighing options, the official said.

After months of relative stability, Islamist rebels who control the north of the country this week began an offensive that captured the central town of Kona, 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Mopti, the last Malian military outpost before the rebel-controlled region.

State of Emergency

The army is in the process of retaking the town, Colonel Diarran Kone, an army spokesman, said by phone late yesterday. The town is home to 50,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Malian Interim President Dioncounda Traore declared a state of emergency on national television yesterday. Companies operating in the country, including mining and telephone businesses, should “contribute to the fight” financially, Traore said in a speech.

The timing of the Ecowas deployment was unclear, spokesman Sunny Ugoh said today by telephone from Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. The Abuja-based body in November agreed to send in 3,300 soldiers.

“The specifics are not there,” he said. “We need to talk to member states and see what they have decided to send.”

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore said yesterday his country will send troops, without specifying when or how many. Nigeria, which is contributing troops to the Ecowas force, has yet to send its soldiers into Mali, Defence Ministry spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerima said by telephone from Abuja.

Al-Qaeda Connection

Hollande said France’s military actions are covered by a Dec. 21 UN Security Council resolution that approved a West African military operation to retake the north. The West African force, which is to be trained by the European Union, is still being formed. Malian Defense Ministry adviser Colonel Abdramane Baby said yesterday that Nigerian and Senegalese military forces had arrived in the country.

Traore sent a letter to Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Jan. 10 requesting military assistance, according to Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN.

“Our goal in this operation is to stop the progress of the terrorist forces toward the south,” Fabius said. “Their aim was to take over all of Mali and turn it into a terrorist state.”

Former Colony

Before the intervention, France had 14 military personnel in Mali under a cooperation agreement with its former colony. France also has military bases in Senegal, Djibouti and Gabon and recently deployed forces in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger as part of various missions.

Hollande said he’d inform French parliamentary leaders about the military mission Jan. 14. Fabius said he’d consulted with France’s allies including the U.S., Russia and Algeria.

Islamist groups, including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s north African unit, took control of northern Mali, along with Touareg separatists, last year following a military coup in March that left a power vacuum in Bamako, the capital.

‘Grave Concern’

The African Union “strongly” condemned the recent offensive and said talks are under way to expedite the deployment of the African-led force, according to a statement distributed by the African Press Organization.

The UN Security Council met Jan. 10 and expressed “grave concern” about attacks by “terrorist and extremist groups” in Mali.

“This serious deterioration of the situation threatens even more the stability and integrity of Mali and constitutes a direct threat to international peace and security,” the council said in a statement.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday that “we echo the international community’s condemnation of these recent aggressive acts.”

She said that the Malian government hasn’t asked for direct U.S. support and that the U.S. is consulting with France. Pentagon spokesman George Little didn’t respond to an e-mail asking if French troops were on the ground in Mali.

Also yesterday, the French Foreign Ministry in a statement advised its 6,000 citizens in Mali to leave the country.

The operation is the first time that Hollande, who immediately after his May election acted to speed up the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan, has ordered French military forces into action.

France’s two main opposition parties, former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Majority and the National Front, issued statements saying they supported the intervention.

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