A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies with majority of its 15 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed in April 2012, when Islamist extremists took over the main cities in the country's north amid disarray following a military coup, and began enforcing strict Shariah law.
French soldiers pressed north in Mali territory occupied by radical Islamists on Wednesday, launching a land assault that was to put them in direct combat with al-Qaida-linked fighters "in one to 72 hours," military officials said.
Islamists entered Diabaly on Monday, taking the town from Malian forces. French war planes have since attacked the rebel positions.French army chief Edouard Guillaud said on Wednesday that ground operations had begun.
The MNLA are not Islamists. They were in a loose alliance with the Islamist Ansar Dine and other groups last year when they defeated the Malian army in the north.But the Tuareg agenda is essentially for self-determination rather than the strict application of Sharia, which is the aim of Ansar Dine.
What began as a campaign of aerial assaults now appears to be expanding into a ground war, raising questions about France’s military capability and political will to defeat the Islamists, a melding of al-Qaeda militants, religious zealots and criminals who seized a Texas-size territory in northern Mali in March. Although French forces have had experience combating guerrillas recently in Afghanistan, they have not played the lead role in a counterinsurgency campaign since France’s colonial days.
France started its attacks against the Islamists in northern Mali the talk was of several hundred French soldiers taking part.The total due here has now risen to 2,500.And the French are gathering international military assistance from wherever they can.Nigeria is due to send some troops soon. Britain has helped with airlift. Belgium has lent helicopters.
Somali Islamist group al-Shabab say they have killed French intelligence agent Denis Allex in retaliation for a botched French operation to free him.Somali militants linked to al Qaeda said on Wednesday that they will execute the French intelligence officer they have held for more than three years, but who is already presumed dead by French authorities. The agent was the object of a botched rescue bid on Saturday.
French forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist rebels have threatened to advance on the capital Bamako from their strongholds in the north. France said it had decided to act to stop the offensive, which could create "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe".
Troops from Niger also will be deployed Thursday along the border between Mali and Niger.Forces from Burkina Faso and Togo are expected to be in place this weekend or early next week.
French army chief Edouard Guillaud said his ground forces were stepping up their operation to engage directly "within hours" with the alliance of Islamist fighters in Mali that groups al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM with the country's home-grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militant movements.
France has some 800 troops on the ground in Mali and defence sources said their numbers were expected to increase to 2,500.However, France has been pushing hard for the deployment of a West African regional force, and regional military commanders have agreed to send troops under a UN Security Council resolution.
Armored vehicles loaded with French troops were seen heading toward Niono, a town 340 kilometers (210 miles) northeast of the capital, Bamako. Some 70 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of Niono lies Diabaly, with a population of 35,000.
There is a greater history to the current crisis in Mali which also connects to other regional countries like Libya, Niger and Algeria. History, like in the invasion of Iraq, shows us that some of the pretexts used for military invasions do not give us the real issues on the ground. Many a times these pretexts have been proved to be false.
It is strange to me that most countries that have the capacity to help out in Mali are making only symbolic gestures like contributing a miserly number of troop transport aircraft. With the taking of hostages of several nationalities at a gas production facility across the border in Algeria, hopefully, the world will realize that the problems in Mali affect us all.