Islamist Insurrection in Mali
Western and United Nations officials are concerned the Islamists could turn Mali into a base for terrorists and criminals. France deployed forces in Mali at the request from the country's interim government after Islamists began advancing southward. Mali was a French colony until 1960 and France still has a variety of economic and political interests there. Mali has been in turmoil since the March 2012 military coup, which triggered an uprising of separatist Tuareg tribes that seized control of the country’s south. The Tuaregs were soon suppressed by the better armed Al-Qaida affiliates who overtook control of the northern region, imposing Sharia law and destroying historical heritage sites in Timbuktu, and later started a southward advance.
French military intervention began, at the request of the Malian government, on 11 January 2013, less than two days after the rebels, in control of the north since April 2012, launched a surprise offensive south. Mali's army, already weakened by military defeat in the north and a coup in the south in 2012, could not have held them off on their own. Many of the rebels fled the main towns, dispersing among the population and seeking cover in the dunes and mountains of the far north. French President Francois Hollande received an exuberant welcome in Mali 02 February 2013, three weeks after the start of a French military intervention that helped stop an Islamist militants' advance.
A political road map was approved 30 January 2013 by the interim President and his government, and received the unanimous support of the Assembly. This event, which the international community had supported in all its decisions relating to the crisis in Mali, and particularly in the successive resolutions of the United Nations' Security Council, was seen as demonstrating the commitment of Mali's political class to restore institutional democracy in the country, with elections to be held in the near future. The document included key priorities for the interim authorities and the international community to re-establish territorial integrity with the eradication of terrorist groups in the north, dialogue with groups that were prepared to respect this integrity and lay down their arms, and the organisation of transparent and free general elections. The road map also set out the actions needed and the timetable for meeting the objectives.
Islamist militants lost ground in northern Mali, with French and Malian troops taking the city of Timbuktu January 28, 2013 and secular Tuareg rebels announcing they have seized the city of Kidal. The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO lists Timbuktu as a World Heritage site for its ancient mosques and shrines, some of which date back to the 15th century. But Islamist group Ansar Dine considers the sites sacrilegious, and the militants destroyed some mausoleums while they controlled the city. France began a military offensive in Mali after Islamist rebels who had seized control of much of the country's northern territory last year began pushing toward Bamako.
African nations and members of the wider international community pledged more than $455 million on January 29, 2013 to assist an African-led military intervention in Mali. Donations pledged at the conference at African Union (AU) headquarters nearly meet the target of $460 million the AU says is needed for the African-led international support mission in Mali, known as AFISMA. The force will support Mali's army in its fight against al-Qaida-linked militants who seized control of northern Mali following a coup in March 2012.
By 22 January 2013 UN officials said the African intervention force deploying in Mali could double from its envisioned 3,300 troops, as more soldiers were needed to help regain control from Islamist militants holding the country's north. ??Ivory Coast UN Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba, who represents the Economic Community of West African States at the United Nations, said nearly 1,000 troops were already in Mali. He urged the Security Council to provide emergency financial and logistical support for the operation.
Planning for AFISMA began several months earlier. African nations have pledged to provide nearly 6,000 troops for the force, and Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso have already sent troops into Mali. France has also deployed more than 3,000 soldiers into the country, who were leading the offensive against the militants in the north. Among the biggest donors at the conference, the African Union has pledged $50 million, the European Union pledged $67 million and the United States said it intends to give $96 million by the end of 2013r, pending Congressional approval.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that more than 30,000 people fled their homes within a few days after the French military intervention, bringing the number of displaced in Mali to around 230,000. The UN estimated there are some two million food-insecure people in Mali. In 2012, the World Food Program managed to reach 1.2 million beneficiaries in the country, more than one-quarter of a million of whom were in the Islamist-rebel-controlled north.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States was not considering sending ground troops to Mali to work with French forces that began an assault on militant Islamist rebels in the country. But he said the US military will help the French in other ways. Panetta commended France for sending troops to try to prevent al-Qaida's North African affiliate from establishing a base of operations in Mali. Secretary Panetta said US forces would help with intelligence, logistics and air transport.
Islamist forces based in northern Mali declared on Monday 14 January 2013 that they will avenge France’s military offensive against them with an attack on French soil. “France has attacked islam. We will strike at the heart of France. In the name of Allah, we will strike at the heart of France.” Abou Dardar, a leader of the islamist group Mujao (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) told French news agency AFP. Asked where the they would strike , Abou Dardar said “Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa and in Europe.” French President Hollande said he had ordered tighter security at home following the intervention in Mali. France "has to take all necessary precautions" in the face of a terrorist threat including increased surveillance of public buildings and transport, he said.
France, the former colonial overseer in West Africa, announced Friday 11 February 2013 that it had deployed troops to Mali at the request of the government. The Mali operation has been code-named“Serval”, after a species of desert cat, Chief of Staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud announced Saturday 12 February 2013. A tactical command is based in Mali and a strategic one, involving the president and the defense ministry, in Paris. The French intervention is a reversal of the government‘s previous commitment to limit its intervention to logistical support and training, apparently prompted by an unexpected Islamist drive south. Only a fortnight earlier, when the situation was intensifying in The Central African Republic, François Hollande had insisted that the days when France intervened directly were over.
Troops from Nigeria and Senegal were also reported to be in Mali to help government forces. African officials said, ECOWAS, the West African regional block had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. In December, the U.N. Security Council approved a plan for West African states to deploy at least 3,000 troops to Mali to help train the army and retake the north. But originally, no troops had been expected in Mali until September 2013.
French air strikes in Mali's key northern town of Konna drove back Islamist militants who had captured the town earlier in the week. French officials said Saturday 12 February 2013 that French forces had pushed rebels from Konna. The Islamists' takeover of the town had placed the militants within 25 kilometers of Mopti, the northernmost city under Malian government control. Dozens of Islamist fighters were reported killed in the operation. France's defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday a helicopter pilot was killed during the air strikes. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said French forces are preparing for any rebel surge on the Malian capital, Bamako. He said troops will remain in the area as long as necessary, saying the militants are behind much lawlessness, including kidnappings.
French President Francois Hollande said the French forces are helping to fight what he called “terrorist elements” in Mali. "This operation will last as long as necessary. I will keep the French regularly informed about its proceedings. The terrorists must know that France will always be here, when it comes to not only its fundamental interests but also the rights of a population, that of Mali, which wants to live freely and in a democracy."
The ongoing military operation against the Islamist insurgency in Mali should be led by either the United Nations or countries of the region, the Kremlin’s envoy to Africa said. “The situation in Mali is understandable, but I believe that any military operation in Africa can and should be flying the flags of the UN and the African Union,” Mikhail Margelov said. “Nobody but the Africans can and should be solving the continent’s problems.”
The al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants have controlled the northern two-thirds of the country since April 2012. Their brutal application of Sharia law included stonings and amputations. Nearly half a million people fled. That number could swell by tens, or even hundreds, of thousands during expected fighting in 2013. African and world leaders say they will not let Mali become a terrorist safe haven, a failed state, a so-called "Afghanistan" in the Sahel. The U.N. Security Council has backed a regional military deployment to Mali next year to deal with an ongoing political crisis in the capital and help the Malian army retake the north from Islamist militants.
African leaders had UN backing for a phased military intervention to send in 3,300 regional troops to retrain and ultimately fight alongside the Malian army. African Union ambassador Antonio Tete told the U.N. Security Council the deployment is an integral part of a three-track plan that includes negotiations and reinforcing the political transition in Bamako. "Any perception of a lack of decisiveness on any of these tracks may send the wrong message to the terrorist and criminal networks, as well as to the armed groups that are not committed to a negotiated solution, while prolonging the suffering of the civilian population and increasing the threat to regional and international peace and security," Tete said.
The UN resolution did not set a timeline for the military offensive. UN Special Representative for the Sahel, Romano Prodi [former prime minister of Italy], has said it's not possible before September 2013. "Any military effort in Mali must be undertaken after careful analysis and thorough preparation and that these efforts should be part of an agreed political process that tackles the roots of the conflict," Prodi said.
International Crisis Group West Africa Director, Gilles Yabi, said while months of preparation are needed, it's impossible to know the risk of waiting. "Will this time give the armed groups -- some of them known terrorists linked to al-Qaida -- more time to recruit and to train people to carry out attacks abroad? Does that mean we should move faster? That's hard to say, but urgency should not justify hasty decisions. Time invested now in negotiations could isolate the hardline terrorists and lead to an intervention strategy that minimizes the risk to civilians," Gilles said.
French warplanes attacked the town of Diabaly the night of January 14-15, 2013, just hours after Islamist fighters took control of the area, 400 kilometers north of Bamako. A convoy of French tanks rolled out of Mali's capital January 15, 2013, heading to northern regions controlled by Islamist militants. France had about 800 soldiers in Mali and intended to boost its troop presence to 2,500 by the end of January 2013. President Francois Hollande said that his forces will begin to pull out of the former French colony once the West African regional bloc ECOWAS has deployed its troops and is ready to take charge. ECOWAS was finalizing plans to send as many as 3,300 troops into Mali, under a United Nations-backed intervention plan. Nigeria says it will deploy its first troops to Mali by January 16, 2013, part of a planned West African coalition force to help Mali's army retake the north.
On 16 January 2013 a break-away faction of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) calling itself "Those Who Sign With Blood" seized as many as 41 foreign hostages who were working at a natural gas complex, in what the militants called retaliation for the French military action in Mali. As many as seven Americans were among the hostages. Others were thought to include Britons, French, Japanese, and Norwegians. AQIM Spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha said Wednesday if America wants to help France in Mali, it will "face the consequences." He said the French declared "war" and Westerners would be harmed if the intervention continued. The militants kidnapped the foreigners during an attack on a natural gas field partly operated by the British energy company BP. The attackers reportedly killed two people, including a British national, and wounded at least six others.
"By all indications, this is a terrorist act, and the United States strongly condemns these kinds of terrorist acts. It is a very serious matter when Americans are taken hostage along with others," said U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. "The United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation." Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said his country would not negotiate with terrorists.
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