France carried out air-strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali Jan. 11, helping government forces halt a drive southward by the militants who control the country’s desert north. France also evidently has introduced ground forces, with President Francois Hollande saying French troops “have brought support this afternoon to Malian units to fight against terrorist elements.” He added: “This operation will last as long as is necessary.” Combined Malian and French forces turned back a rebel advance, retaking the town of Konna (Mopti region, see map) that had been seized by a mixed force of the militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO, apparently with fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mali’s government declared a nation-wide state of emergency as the counter-offensive was launched.
President Dioncounda Traore used a televised address to call upon on Malians to unite to “free every inch” of the country, pledging a “powerful and massive riposte against our enemies.” He said he had “called for and obtained France’s air support within the framework of the international legality,” pointing to last month’s UN Security Council resolution sanctioning an African-led military intervention in Mali.
Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of US Africa Command, who was traveling in neighboring Niger at the time of the French attack, hailed it as sucessful: “If there was an intent by the bad guys to continue the attack, that appears to be been stopped, maybe even slightly reversed.” US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, asked whether the President Traore had requested specific kinds of military support, said: “It wasn’t specific, but it basically said, ‘Help, France!'”
The UN-sanctioned intervention force, to be led by the West African bloc ECOWAS, is not due to arrive in Mali until Semptember. Earlier this week, African Union chairman Thomas Boni Yayi said NATO should send forces to Mali to fight the Islamists.
The taking of Konna, seems to have forced the issue. The rebel advance caused panic among residents in the towns of Mopti and Sevare, some 60 kilometers to the south. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called for “accelerated international engagement” and said the bloc would speed up plans to deploy 200 troops to train Malian forces, expected to arrive in late February. Peace talks between the Malian government, Ansar Dine and separatist Tuareg rebels in Burkina Faso have now been postponed at least until Jan. 21. (Reuters, NYT, North Africa United, DW, Xinhua, BBC News, Jan. 11)