Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
News, January 2013
Fighting Continues in Mali Between Invading French Forces and Malian Fighters
Readers should note that the following news stories come from France 24, which is an official TV website, representing the viewpoint of the invading French forces.
The viewpoint of the Malian fighters is needed in order for the news stories to be fair and balanced.
West African leaders seek UN aid for Mali force
West African leaders solicited financial and logistical support on Saturday from the UN for an African force to fight Islamist rebels in Mali, as France’s President François Hollande said French troops would stay in the country as long as necessary.
West African leaders Saturday sought urgent UN aid for a regional force to fight Islamists in Mali as President Francois Hollande said French troops would remain as long as needed to stamp out "terrorism".
The emergency summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc also called on member states and Chad, which has pledged 2,000 troops, to put words into action without haste.
Only about 100 African soldiers of a planned 5,800 African force have so far reached Mali, while France said Saturday that 2,000 French soldiers were now on the ground after Paris launched an offensive a little over a week ago to stop Islamists swooping down from the north, which is under their control.
A statement at the end of the Abidjan meeting called on the United Nations "to immediately provide financial and logistical backing for the deployment of MISMA", the African force.
African troop deployments have always been long-drawn affairs. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "The truth is that ECOWAS has no money to transport its troops".
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who also attended the summit, said it was time for the Africans to take charge of the task of halting the extremist advance "as soon as possible".
"It is vital that the maximum number of countries worldwide contribute" to the effort, he said, speaking ahead of a donors' conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on January 29.
"France was obliged to intervene very, very rapidly, otherwise there would have been no more Mali," Fabius said. "But it is well understood that it is the Africans that must pick up the baton."
But Hollande, speaking in France, said: "I am often asked the question: how long will this last? I reply... 'As long as is necessary'. As long as is necessary so that terrorism can be defeated in that part of Africa".
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who is also the current head of ECOWAS, said it was high time others did their bit to help end the crisis.
"The hour has come for a broader commitment by the major powers and more countries and organisations to the military operations to show greater solidarity with France and Africa," he said.
"We must speed up the re-establishment of Mali's territorial integrity with the logistical support of our partners ... (and) go beyond our current deployment numbers," Ouattara said, warning that the crisis threatened to destabilise the region.
Malian soldiers, backed by French troops and air power, retook the key central town of Konna on Thursday from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who had swooped down more than a week ago and threatened the capital Bamako.
There were conflicting reports on another town, Diabaly, which the Malian army claimed was recaptured but the French defence ministry effectively denied this.
Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore, in an address on state television late Saturday, vowed to rout the Islamists who he said wanted "to impose a medieval ideology on our people".
"This war will be without doubt costly and tiring," he said but added: "We will win this war in the name of civilisation and democracy."
Traore also appealed to other countries to back the drive against the militants by extending "logistical and any other kind of aid to create a region that is rid of terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime".
The French presence has been a lifeline for Mali's ill-equipped and demoralised soldiers, struggling to fight an amalgam of Islamist and Tuareg rebel groups.
The Malian army proved no match for Tuareg separatist rebels who took them by surprise when they relaunched a decades-old rebellion in January last year.
As anger rose over their defeats, a group of soldiers
overthrew the government in Bamako in a disastrous March
coup, which only made it easier for the Tuareg and their
new Islamist allies to seize the vast arid north.
US doesn't feel stakes in Mali 'as intensely' as France
The US has decided to lend logistical support to France’s efforts in battling al Qaeda-inspired groups in Mali, but made clear it will not send troops. According to foreign policy expert Richard Downie, the US faces legal limits on its role.
By Jon FROSCH (text)
France 24, Jan 19, 2013
In the days following the start of France’s offensive against al Qaeda-inspired groups in Mali on January 11, top US officials offered strong statements of support.
“We have a responsibility to go after al Qaeda wherever they are,” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters during a trip to Europe, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that “instability in Mali has created the opportunity for a staging base and safe haven for terrorists”.
The US has offered logistical support (airlift assistance, reinforced intelligence and supplies to French and African forces) to French operations in the country’s former colony. But it has made no decision yet as to whether it will provide surveillance drones or aerial refuelling for French jets, as requested by France. Furthermore, the authorities have said there are no plans to send in American troops.
Indeed, the US response to unrest in Mali has been measured, even as American citizens are being held hostage by Islamist militants in neighbouring Algeria.
France24.com spoke to Richard Downie, the deputy director of the Africa programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank in Washington DC. Here are highlights from the interview.
FRANCE 24: The US is cautious about getting involved in any military aspect of the situation in Mali. Why?
Richard Downie: The first thing to know is that the US has legal restrictions on support it can give to Mali directly. There is a law in the US that bars military assistance to countries where civilian governments have been toppled – like Mali, where the military coup last spring toppled president Touré. There is a transitional arrangement now, but the junta is still meddling in politics there. So the US is barred by its own legal restriction, which rules out supporting the Malian military directly.
FRANCE 24: Would there be any way for the US to get around that legal restriction if it did want to get involved militarily?
RD: Technically, in 2001 – after 9/11 – the US Congress approved the open-ended use of military force against al Qaeda and its allies. But although AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group’s North African branch] is seen as an offshoot of al Qaeda, that authority has not yet been used by the US.
FRANCE 24: What about the more political and strategic reasons for the US to avoid direct military action in Mali?
RD: The US is always reluctant to put American boots on African ground. You can trace some of that back to the 1993 Black Hawk Down mission in Somalia [a mission during which US forces fought Somali militiamen, resulting in two US “Black Hawk” helicopters being shot down and 18 Americans being killed]. That is still very much etched on the US military memory in Africa.
There are also certain US sensibilities toward Africans as well. America is generally wary of anything that smacks of neo-colonialism in Africa. So US policy in Africa has been to keep US boots off the ground and work with African governments and militaries so they can take initiative themselves. An example of that is that AFRICOM (the US Africa Command), the branch of the US army responsible for US with military operations and relations with Africa, has its headquarters in Germany, rather than Africa.
I think the US is aware that the African colonial experience was particularly harsh and brutal, and Africans are incredibly sensitive to any outsiders coming in again and interfering.
And finally, America’s hesitation to do more in Mali comes partly from lessons learned from other parts of the world – the desire not to repeat the same kind of messy military operations it’s engaged in elsewhere.
FRANCE 24: Is there any contradiction in the US position on Mali, given that it has long emphasised the dangers of al Qaeda?
RD: The US feeling about the situation is different from the French position. France feels this threat much more directly, and feels much more deeply concerned and involved, because it is closer geographically and has more links and ties with Mali. The US doesn’t feel the stakes as intensely. That said, if there’s any big space where terrorist elements can take up, the US is worried. That’s why they have offered logistical support, and you can expect the US to take a very active role in training the African intervention force that is currently being assembled and will eventually go into Mali.
FRANCE 24: Has there been tension between France and the US over the Mali situation and their respective positions?
RD: Publically, the US has supported France in this intervention. But behind the scenes, there have been some tensions. France has always been more forward-leaning in its approach to the Mali situation, whereas the US has been more cautious. The US position has always been finding a political solution in Mali: getting a legitimately elected government, which will pave the way for the US to assist them in battling these groups.
The international community had come to the agreement that an African intervention force, approved by the UN, would be deployed to fight the militants in Mali, with ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] being the main component. But France threw that out by going in unilaterally. I can understand why they did, but they have to be prepared to stay there for awhile. Otherwise, there will be a vacuum that would allow Islamists to take control.
I think the French went in knowing exactly where the US stood and understanding the legal limits the US faces in terms of direct military intervention in Mali. And America understands that the French have military assets in Africa, and are willing to deploy them as they see necessary. So any differences between France and the US in nuance and approach in terms of Mali can be ironed out. France and the US are the two closest allies in terms of Africa and their respective objectives there. France is America’s go-to partner in Africa.
Mali Islamists 'better-equipped' than expected
As French-backed Malian troops pushed north, retaking the town of Konna Friday, a French envoy said Mali's Islamist rebels were "well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained and determined.”
By News Wires (text)
France 24, Jan 18, 2013
French troops’ initial clashes with Islamist militants in Mali have shown that the desert fighters are better trained and equipped than France had anticipated before last week’s military intervention, French and other U.N. diplomats said.
The realization that the fighting could be bloodier than anticipated in the weeks—or months—ahead might make Western countries even more reluctant to get involved alongside France. French officials, however, hope it will rally their allies behind them, diplomats say.
“The cost of failure in Mali would be high for everyone, not just the people of Mali,” an African diplomat said on Thursday. Like the other diplomats, he spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military and diplomatic issues.
The seizure of dozens of hostages in neighboring Algeria, where Algerian troops launched a military operation to rescue the captives from “diehard” Islamist militants at a desert gas plant, also raises the possibility that Islamist violence could snowball beyond Mali’s borders.
The diplomats were speaking after French forces had their first encounters with Islamist fighters in recent days. The ground war appeared headed for escalation on Thursday as French troops surrounded the town of Diabaly, trapping rebels who had seized it three days ago.
“Our enemies were well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained and determined,” a senior French diplomat said.
“The first surprise was that some of them are holding the ground,” he said, adding that others had fled during six days of French air strikes aimed at halting the militants’ offensive and preventing the fall of Mali’s capital, Bamako.
French, Malian and African forces are facing off against an Islamist coalition that includes al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM, and the homegrown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militants. The motley mix of Tuareg rebels, Islamists and foreign jihadists has been united by the threat of foreign military intervention, which the Security Council called for last month.
Some of the militants are believed to have been trained and armed by the government of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted and killed by rebels in a 2011 civil war.
Fog of war
A number of diplomats said it was clear that the initial French assessments of the militants had underestimated their strength. It is a view that French officials do not dispute.
“They are better trained, I think, than the French had anticipated at the beginning and are fighting harder than had been anticipated,” a senior Western diplomat said.
Other envoys noted that the 2,000 promised Chadian troops, who are known for their desert-fighting expertise, have yet to arrive and it remains to be seen how they will perform.
Diplomats said that the overly optimistic assessments of the Islamists were understandable in what several envoys described as “the fog of war,” where clarity is rare and precise information and accurate intelligence are often hard to come.
The senior Western diplomat said there was nothing to suggest the French were being overwhelmed on the ground and pointed to the achievement of Paris’ initial objective, which was halting the militants’ offensive.
“They feel that they took the decisions that they had to take in the short term,” he said.
“But inevitably in these situations you never quite know what the outcome’s going to be, or what the consequences are going to be, or what the exit strategy is. But they have been successful in protecting Bamako, which could have fallen.”
Nicolas van de Walle, a professor at Cornell University, said the rebels have demonstrated “superior knowledge of this very difficult terrain, their ability to slip across foreign borders and their impressive mobility.”
French forces total 1,800 troops, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday, and their numbers are expected to rise to 2,500. Foreign African troops have also begun arriving.
Incorrect Algerian intelligence?
Northern Mali fell under Islamist control after a March 2012 military coup in Bamako triggered a Tuareg-led rebel offensive that seized the north and split the West African nation in two.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council approved an African-led force to help Mali’s government reclaim the north. That force is to be comprised of up to 3,300 troops, but is not expected to be deployed in the north before September.
The French and others have called for an acceleration of the force’s deployment in light of the emergency Mali is facing.
So far the entire Security Council - including the typically skeptical Russians - are supporting the French, diplomats say.
Despite that diplomatic backing, envoys say that Western nations have offered France little of the logistical support it has requested. The United States agreed to France’s request for airlift capacity for troops, and U.N. diplomats said Paris was still hoping Washington can provide drones and aerial refueling capacity.
The surprises about the Mali conflict have not been limited to the militants’ behavior on the battlefield, diplomats say.
Before the Islamists launched their offensive earlier this month and threatened to take Bamako, Algerian intelligence had concluded that elements of Ansar Dine would be open to negotiations and would not fight alongside AQIM and others.
That assessment proved incorrect.
“It was believed that there were links between Ansar Dine elements and elements of Algerian intelligence,” a diplomat told Reuters. “But those links appear to have vanished.”
Algeria’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.
The Algerians are allowing their former colonial masters, the French, to use their airspace, which U.N. diplomats say is no small matter and shows Algeria’s commitment to supporting France’s efforts in Mali.
Algeria has much at stake, given that it does not want the Islamists in Mali to retreat to its territory, where they could carry out operations like the one on Wednesday in which militants seized dozens of hostages.
Latest update: 17/01/2013
French special forces battle rebels in central Mali
A major French ground offensive got under way in Mali on Wednesday, with French special forces clashing with Islamist fighters in the central Malian town of Diabaly amid reports of rebels hiding in houses among civilians.
By Leela JACINTO (text)
French special forces clashed with Islamist rebels in a central Malian town just 400 kilometres north of the Malian capital of Bamako on Wednesday at the start of a major ground offensive in the West African nation amid mounting fears that jihadist fighters were merging into civilian populations.
Wednesday’s ground fighting came on the sixth day of the French military intervention in Mali and centred around the town of Diabaly, which had turned into a rebel stronghold in recent days.
Reporting from Bamako, FRANCE 24’s Catherine Norris Trent said French special forces had been engaging in combat with Islamist fighters inside the town.
“From what we understand, Islamist fighters there have been hiding in some of the houses alongside villagers,” said Norris Trent. “So it’s more difficult for the French forces to target them without resulting in civilian casualties.”
Senior French military officials have acknowledged that the rebels could hide behind civilians. In an interview with the French RTL radio, Admiral Edouard Guillaud said militant groups have a history of taking human shields. But he stressed that France would do its utmost to avoid civilian casualties. “When in doubt, we will not fire,” he said.
Fears of civilians getting trapped in the fighting came as the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation on Wednesday into war crimes committed since an armed uprising following the March 22, 2012 coup led to the fall of northern Mali to a motley mix of rebel groups - some of them linked to al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
According to ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the investigation will focus on northern Mali, where there have been widespread reports of murder, rape, mutilation and summary executions in Islamist controlled regions over the past nine months.
Fierce fighting in western Mali
Meanwhile, in the first sign of a possible fallout of the Malian conflict, Islamist militants attacked and occupied a natural gas complex in neighbouring Algeria on Wednesday, holding 41 foreign nationals hostage.
According to the Mauritanian ANI news agency, which has regular direct contact with AQIM militants, a spokesman for an AQIM brigade said, "The operation was in response to the blatant interference by Algeria and the opening of its air space to French aircraft to bomb northern Mali.”
The kidnappings came as Mali’s neighbours were braced for a humanitarian and security fallout from the conflict, notably in Algeria - which shares a 1,300 kilometre border with Mali - and Mauritania, which shares a 2,200 kilometre border with western Mali.
French defense officials have acknowledged that troops have been encountering fierce resistance particularly in western Mali.
In an interview with RTL radio on Wednesday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Islamists groups in western Mali “are the toughest, most fanatical, better organised, more determined and well equipped. It’s going to be difficult”.
At a press conference on Tuesday night, Le Drian said that
the town of Konna had not been completely recaptured from
jihadists, as the Malian army had previously announced.
Analysts said the first ground battles would likely concentrate around Konna and Diabaly, which fell to an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group on Monday.
Hollande says ground offensive ‘both necessary and legitimate’
In recent weeks, France has been pushing hard for a deployment of a West African regional ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] mission in Mali.
Several neighbouring countries have pledged to take part in the mission, including Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo and Chad, which has said it would be sending some 2,000 troops. The regional troops are expected to start arriving later this week.
On Tuesday, France said that it had 800 soldiers deployed in Mali and would build up to a 2,500-strong force.
Amid fears that France could get bogged down in a long, messy conflict in Mali, French President François Hollande has defended the ground offensive, calling it “both necessary and legitimate”.
In an annual address to the French press on Wednesday, Hollande said France’s intervention was necessary to stop Islamists, and had the full backing of Europe and the United Nations.
“France will not be alone,” he said, addressing fears that France has been abandoned on the battlefield by Western powers.
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