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Terrorists Pushed Back by France in Mali

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Dioncounda Traore, interim president of Mali
Dioncounda Traore, the interim president of Mali, who sent an urgent plea in January 2013 to France and the United Nations asking for help to fight the terrorists in his country. JOE PENNEY

The French military has stepped into the mire of Mali, retaking the de facto border town of Konna, which was recently usurped by a loose coalition of Islamic rebels and terrorists who have dominated the northern two-thirds of the country since a military coup in March 2012. That action opened the door for Tuareg rebels and extremists with lots of weapons to sweep into such northern towns as Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and occupy the region, instilling Sharia law in some areas.

In response to the Konna seizure by terrorists on Jan. 10, France sent a special operations force, based in neighboring Chad, to repel the groups by air and to also ensure the security of the main city nearby, Mopti, which is about 395 miles from Bamako, Mali’s capital.

For now, Bamako is operating in its usual laid-back demeanor, as if the events in Konna and Mopti were thousands of miles away, a writer there told PassBlue, awaiting news on the situation in the Mopti border region.

The assault on Konna by the French military, and to be assisted soon with a small contingent of troops from Senegal, Nigeria, Niger and Burkina Faso, with logistical help from the United States, follows just a day after France, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and Mali’s former colonizer, called an emergency session to discuss Mali’s sudden developments.

The military move by France was also spurred by an urgent letter sent by Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, to France and the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, asking for help to defend the country from the terrorist elements in the north. The Traore government remains as shaky as the day it was installed by the military last spring.

The president of France, Francois Hollande, said in a statement on Jan. 11 that “the very existence of the friendly state of Mali is at stake, as is the security of its people and that of our citizens” — about 6,000 people in the country.

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“I therefore responded, on behalf of France, to the request for assistance issued by Mali’s president, supported by the West African countries,” Hollande said, adding that the operation “will continue as long as necessary.”

The Security Council and regional African groups as well as the European Union have been struggling since the March 2012 coup to find the right path to correct the situation in Mali, passing numerous resolutions and vowing to rebuild the Malian army so that it could repel the terrorists more or less on its own. But financing for the effort and other major obstacles remained unresolved. With the recent assault by terrorists in Konna, however, France took the upper hand to protect the remaining sovereignty of the country and its own citizens there and contain the growing encroachment of terrorists and other rebel groups for, as it said, “international peace and security.”

[This article was updated on Jan. 12, 2013.]

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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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