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Mali, NATO's African Afghanistan:
French, Malian forces push north as US extends support


Chadian soldiers waiting to board a French Hercule military aircraft in N'Djamena, Chad, to join French invading forces fighting against Malian people, Jan. 24, 2013 xin A French forces personnel carrier passes by a Malian woman, Jan 24, 2013 f24


Malian-French forces recapture Mali's biggest northern town

BAMAKO, Jan. 26, 2013 (Xinhua) --

The Malian and French forces on Saturday said they have recaptured Gao, the biggest northern town, after a series of counter-offensives against rebels in the past two weeks.

The biggest ever gain on the ground was announced by allied forces after an overnight bombing by French warplanes on rebel positions and sporadic street fighting. Dozens of rebels were killed in the battle over the town.

Mayor of Gao Sadou Diallo would arrive in the town from the Malian capital Bamako in the day, according to the French military.

Reinforcements were reported to consolidate the control of Gao, including 350 Malian soldiers. Chadian and Nigerien troops, who are known for experience in desert warfare, would reach Gao "very soon," the same source said.

The Malian and French troops took control of Wabaria bridge and the Gao international airport before seizing the town.

Early this week, the Malian forces and their French allies began the second phase of their operation to recapture the two regional capitals of Timbuktu and Gao that came under control of the Islamist rebels earlier 2012.

The airport is about six kilometers east of Gao and the bridge is at the southern gate of the city. The control of the two sites is strategically on an upper hand position for the coalition forces in the fight against the al Quida-backed rebels.

Besides the Gao airport, the locality of Lere is also under control of the Malian army which is advancing with the French support towards Timbuktu in the Western part near the border with Mauritania.

Supported with airstrikes by the French forces on the rebel strongholds, the coalition forces are advancing quickly since the launch of offensives against the rebels who occupied the northern part of Mali in earlier 2012, including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

Since Jan. 11, the Malian-French troops have liberated several towns starting from Kanno in central Mali, pushing back the rebel forces to the north.

The rebels had overrun the Malian army since January last year when the conflict started sparked by call for political autonomy of the northern Mali region of Azawad, an area inhabited by the Tuareg people.

The rebels took control of that region in April last year and advanced to take over several other cities including the worldly known cultural site of Timbuktu. The conflict worsened when the country's President Amadou Toumani Toure was ousted in a coup by mutinous soldiers in last March.

The United Nations has authorized the deployment of a 3,300- strong force under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But according to the African Union's peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra, that force needs to be strengthened to better respond to the challenges facing the country.

The commissioner is expected to plead for a stronger force at the 20th AU Summit at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa this weekend.

Latest reports said the AU is set to send almost 6,000 troops to Mali to help restore its territorial integrity.

While the ECOWAS defense ministers are meeting in Abdjian to review the situation in Mali and consider military reenforcement in the country, Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru told Xinhua at the AU Headquarters in Ethiopia on Saturday that five non-ECOWAS nations in Africa -- South Africa, Rwanda, Tanzania, Chad and Burundi -- have agreed to contribute troops to the International Mission of Support to Mali.

"This pledge is significant because it comes from non West African nations and show that Africans are ready to deal with this problem," said the Nigerian minister. It was not clear when the troops will start operations in Mali but the minister said the deployment will be immediate.

"We have agreed that the African Union should not allow any of its territories to be used by criminal gangs and terrorists to terrorize citizens," stressed Olubenga Ashiru. "Today it is Mali, tomorrow it will be another country. This must be stopped immediately."

Previously, members of the ECOWAS had pledged 3,300 troops to the Mali conflict and Chad also agreed to dispatch 1,200 persons to join the multinational operations in Mali.

"All our troops are already on the ground in Mali but some of the ECOWAS members have been facing logistical problems delivering their troops. The regional plan we are working on will ensure that all the troops pledged be in Mali in the next two weeks," the Nigerian minister said.

ECOWAS has also instructed Mali's neighbors Algeria, Mauritania and Libya to close their borders with the country to prevent the rebels from escaping to those territories.


French, Malian forces push north as US extends support

EMA/Armée de l'air

By News Wires (text), France 24, Jan 27, 2013

French-led forces in Mali pushed north on Sunday after retaking the city of Gao from Islamist rebel control a day earlier, as the United States agreed to provide vital refuelling facilities for France’s air offensive.

French-led troops were pressing on in Mali Sunday after recapturing the Islamist stronghold of Gao, as the United States agreed to provide vital refuelling facilities for France's air offensive.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said their troops, having captured Gao, were advancing on Timbuktu, another key town in the vast northern desert region held for 10 months by Al Qaeda-linked rebels.

Washington's decision to step up its role in the conflict by helping refuel French warplanes was a vital boost to the campaign.

French airstrikes were what forced the Islamists from their strongholds in the north, clearing the way for the ground offensive.

Saturday's seizure of Gao, the most populated town in Mali's northern region, which is roughly the size of Texas, was announced by the French defence ministry and confirmed by Malian security sources.

Ayrault said the troops were currently "around Gao and (will be) soon near Timbuktu," further west. A fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu served as a centre of Islamic learning for centuries.

"The objective is that the African multinational force being put together be able to take over, and that Mali be able to begin a process of political stabilisation," Ayrault said.

A Malian security source in Gao told AFP by telephone that a first contingent of Malian, Chadian and Niger troops had arrived in Gao to help secure it, having been flown in from Niamey, capital of neighbouring Niger.

Other soldiers from Chad and Niger were moving by land toward the Malian border from the Niger town of Ouallam, which lies about 100 kilometres southeast of Gao.

Washington's decision to agree to France's request for air refuelling facilities came after two weeks of deliberation. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave the news to his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian in a telephone conversation Saturday, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Mali crisis 'tops the agenda' at African Union summit FRANCE 24 correspondent Duncan Woodside reporting from Addis Ababa

They also discussed plans for the Americans to transport troops from African nations, including Chad and Togo, to facilitate the international effort in Mali.

President Barack Obama made his support for the French operation clear in a phone conversation Friday with French President Francois Hollande.

The US military has an unparalleled fleet of more than 400 tankers equipped to refuel fighters and other warplanes in mid-air. France has about 14 such tankers.

Slow deployment of regional forces

French-led forces took Gao from the Al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the Islamist groups that for 10 months have controlled northern Mali.

In April last year after a coup in Bamako, an alliance of Tuareg rebels seeking an independent homeland in the north joined forces with several Islamist groups, seizing Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

The Islamist quickly sidelined the Tuaregs imposing a harsh version of Islamic sharia law in the region. Transgressors were flogged, stoned and executed, they banned music and television and forced women to wear veils.

Groups involved include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the MUJAO, which is an offshoot of AQIM and the homegrown group Ansar Dine.

Mali was expected to be top of the agenda at the African Union (AU) summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa opening Sunday.

On Saturday, West African defence chiefs meeting in Ivory Coast agreed to boost the their troop pledges for the force to 5,700 from the previous 4,500.

Chad, which neighbours Mali but is not a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) raising the force, has promised an additional 2,000 soldiers.

So far however, only a fraction of the African troops have arrived in Bamako, the Malian capital in the south of the country. French and Malian forces have done all the fighting to date.

The AU last week agreed to seek help from the United Nations with transport, medicine and field hospitals for the African-led force in Mali, or AFISMA.

France has already deployed 2,500 troops to Mali and its defence ministry says 1,900 African soldiers are on the ground there and in Niger.

Mali and the Afghanistan comparison

By Clare Richardson

Reuters, January 17, 2013

A Malian soldier stands guard as Mali’s President Dioncounda Traore visits French troops at an air base in Bamako, Mali January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

The French intervention in Mali this week raises the specter of another first-world nation’s rather recent mission to weed out Islamic militants. As France’s jets pummel the desert and its troops face ground battles against al Qaeda-linked rebels, a troubling analogy has presented itself in media reports and analyses: Will Mali become France’s Afghanistan?

France’s mission in Mali is to prevent the Sahel region from becoming a terrorist planning and training ground, particularly for al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM. The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera explains the situation in terms of the conditions in Afghanistan before the U.S. intervention in 2001.

“No-one in Paris – or any other Western capital – wants parts of Mali to become like Afghanistan in the 1990s – a place where acts of terror further afield could be planned and where people would then ask why something was not done earlier.”

Indeed, concerns that Mali will become an ungoverned militant safe haven and training ground mirror the rhetoric used to rally support for the war in Afghanistan. The Associated Press made the comparison back in October.

“Many in the West fear that northeast Mali and the arid Sahel region could become the new Afghanistan, a no-man’s-land where extremists can train, impose hardline Islamic law and plot terror attacks abroad.”

Yet similar intentions in Afghanistan have flung the U.S. into arguably its longest war, and cost over 3,200 lives of coalition forces and an untold number of Afghan civilians (some estimates put the number at roughly 20,000).

The fighting in Mali already has proven “harder than expected,” according to an AP report, despite a flat terrain that provides few places for extremists to hide (U.S. News reporter Paul D. Shinkman has pointed out the difficulty of finding combatants in Afghanistan’s “isolated porous mountain border with Pakistan” and “densely populated areas.”) Al Qaeda’s control, too, may be greater in Mali than Afghanistan.

“Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan,” former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler told the AP. “They do own northern Mali.”

There are certainly key differences between the two countries. In an article for the Globe and Mail exploring whether Mali will look like Afghanistan, interim director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa Dave Petrasek offers a caveat on how the two interventions will differ:

“The Taliban have political aspirations within a defined territory, whereas AQIM’s aims are far less containable. And in response to a reporter’s questions about parallels with Afghanistan, French ministers have insisted that the commitment to Mali is not open-ended and will last only a few weeks.”

The AP also cites differences between the populations as a factor that could influence the outcome.

“Another factor in the success of military intervention will be the reaction of the people, who, unlike in Afghanistan, have little history of extremism. Malians have long practiced a moderate form of Islam, where women do not wear burqas and few practice the strict form of the religion. The Islamists are imposing a far more severe form of Islam on the towns of the north, carrying out amputations in public squares, flogging women for not covering up and destroying world heritage sites.”

Now, with hundreds of French troops advancing from the Malian capital Bamako toward Islamist insurgents, France risks embroiling itself in a protracted conflict in a faraway country.

Despite France’s insistence that the intervention will last just a few weeks, Reuters journalist Mark John notes the mission has the potential to lock France into Africa for decades.

“Africa’s latest war is likely to entail a long stay for France with an exit strategy that will depend largely on allies who have yet to prove they are ready for the fight.”

Ultimately, Afghanistan should serve as a reminder that the true legacy of France’s involvement in Mali will depend on how they leave the country.

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