French Ground Forces to Attack Mali Rebel Territory

French ground forces advanced toward northern Mali to engage Islamist militants as West African soldiers prepared to join the fight against the insurgents.

French soldiers moved from the capital, Bamako, for the start of what they expect will be “a guerrilla-like conflict,” Admiral Edouard Guillaud, France’s chief of defense staff, said yesterday on Europe 1 radio from Paris.

The frontline between insurgents and Mali’s army is “artificial” and “the result of a balance of forces that we want to break,” French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament. The air strikes deep into the north are meant to “neutralize the terrorists, and degrade their ability to strike across the country,” he said.

With about 1,700 troops committed to the Mali mission, including 800 already in the country, President Francois Hollande said his aim is to destroy or capture the militants who split the country in two early last year and began moving south toward the capital last week.

“Our goal is that when we leave, there will be security in Mali, a legitimate government, and no terrorists threatening the security of Mali,” Hollande said Jan. 15 in Dubai.

In neighboring Algeria, an al-Qaeda-linked group took American, Norwegian and British workers hostage in a pre-dawn attack yesterday on a gas facility in southern Algeria partly operated by BP Plc.

Militant Demands

A heavily armed group arrived in three vehicles at a workers’ compound near In Amenas, about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) southeast of Algiers, and attacked a bus carrying foreign employees, the Interior Ministry told the Algerian Press Service. A British citizen was killed and six people were wounded, according to APS.

The group, calling itself the “Signatories by Blood,” is demanding that France end its military attacks in Mali, according to Mauritania’s private ANI news agency.

The rebel offensive in Mali last week prompted thousands of people to flee to neighboring countries and cities in the south, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

ICC Investigation

The International Criminal Court started an investigation into possible war crimes committed in Mali since January 2012, The Hague-based organization said yesterday. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said there’s a “reasonable basis” to believe crimes including rape, murder and torture have been committed.

West African defense chiefs met in Bamako Jan. 15 as countries including Ghana, Togo, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria pledged troops for the mission. Nigeria said it would send 190 troops within 24 hours, with the remaining 710 soldiers of its contingent arriving next week.

“We want to deploy troops rapidly to support the Malian troops,” Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara, who is also the chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, told reporters in Berlin yesterday. “We want to solve this military problem as quickly as possible.”

The rebels exploited political instability in Bamako after a March coup to seize control of the north. While the insurgents include Islamists such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s north African unit, there are also ethnic Touareg fighters seeking greater autonomy in the region.

Criminal Bands

Mali is now led by interim President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of the coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.

The militants number 2,000 to 5,000 fighters, with criminal bands and drugs smugglers on the fringes, according to a report from CF2R, a French institute that does research on intelligence.

The institute says the French have advantages such as a long history operating in the region, 10 years of experience in Afghanistan, relative proximity to home, low population density in the region which lessens civilians casualties, and hostility of local residents and neighboring countries to the Islamists.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir, the Nigerian head of the West African force, told reporters. “Once the planning is properly conducted and you have the logistics support that you require, I believe it’s not an insurmountable problem.” West African heads of government will meet Jan. 19 in Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast.

Kona Abandoned

Malian forces have yet to retake the central town of Kona, which fell to rebels last week before being abandoned after the French air strikes, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday.

French aircraft have flown about 50 sorties since their intervention last week, and strikes are continuing, especially in the west of the country, he said. Two Dassault Aviation SA F1 Mirages are stationed in Bamako, with six Mirage 2000’s and four Rafales running missions from Chad, according to the Defense Ministry.

Algeria has closed its 1,400-kilometer border with Mali and is allowing French overflights, as is Morocco, Hollande said.

Germany said it will provide transport planes, with the United Arab Emirates considering humanitarian, material and financial help. Belgium is sending two transport planes and a medical helicopter. British transport planes are already ferrying French equipment to the region.

German Security

“Germany views security in the region also as a part of its own security, because of course terrorism in Mali, or northern Mali, isn’t only a threat for Africa, but also a threat for Europe,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin yesterday. “The question was asked how real the threat is that the terrorists could cross beyond the borders of Mali -- and, yes, that is indeed a real threat.”

Landlocked Mali vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer. 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 country ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the UN 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.

The U.S. and Europe “have a lot on the line,” Gregory Mann, a Columbia University associate professor of history and author who focuses on Francophone West Africa, said in phone interview from Paris. “There is a growing consensus that this is a much more serious problem than some may have first thought.”

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