In its fifth day, France’s air assault against Al Qaeda-related militias and other regional Islamic extremists continues to rattle central Mali and the de fact border region separating the country from its northern territory, which was seized by a range of terrorist groups last spring. Contrary to France’s assertion earlier this week, it said more recently that the Malian Army and French special operation troops did not successfully retake the town of Konna on the border Jan. 11. The attack left “heavy casualties” on Malian soldiers, France reported, without giving details.
The country’s current focus is on bombing Gao, in the heart of northern Mali and the base of the Islamic fighters. Gao is also home to such Unesco sites as the Tomb of Askia. The UN agency has pleaded for protection of such sacred sites amid the blasts.
About 1,500 more French troops are expected to arrive in the country soon.
The attack on Jan. 11 by the French and Malian in Konna was meant to prevent the terrorists from moving farther south into the more important city of Mopti, about 395 miles from the Malian capital, Bamako. French soldiers, about 1,000 in total, faced another surprising threat a few days later in the small garrison town of Diabaly in the west. Diabaly is actually closer to Bamako than Mopti, about 250 miles, so the move has spurred French bombing there, too.
France called for a closed meeting at the United Nations Security Council this week to discuss the next steps and ultimately how to resolve the conflict as it spirals out of control. So far, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has endorsed the “bilateral” effort by France and Mali to restore constitutional order and territorial integrity, but France did not elaborate to the press after the council meeting on military strategy, time frame, money and other basics. It did reiterate its legal justification for the intervention, citing a Security Council resolution passed last year to set up an African-led force to push out the terrorists.
Mali’s problems also entail a powerless government, installed by the military after a coup in March 2012, and a humanitarian crisis brought on by nearly half a million people displaced last year from the terrorist takeover. Recent airstrikes are generating a fresh set of homeless families, more than 1,000 people, streaming into Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, the UN said.
The UN also said that it was tracking the effects of the French bombing on civilians but gave no numbers on how many have been killed or wounded. Journalists are barred from the fighting zones in Mali and confined to reporting from Bamako, relying mainly on the French military for information.
Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the UN, told the press corps that his country has full council support and that the next step was to quickly form a West African troop contingent through the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), with Nigeria leading. Although regional countries have pledged to send troops, such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger and Senegal, only Togo, a delegate told PassBlue, is ready to go.
The financing of such a force has not been made clear by France or by the council. Logistical support to France is being provided by the U.S., and Araud said that proposals for help have been sent by Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark and “maybe Germany.” France has called on North African countries to lend expertise as well.
Nigeria, its defense minister told the BBC, has some experience fighting in desert terrain in its own country and through its UN peacekeeping troops in Darfur, Sudan. The minister said that Nigeria was already assessing Mali’s military, and that 3,000 Ecowas troops would be readied in weeks.
In Bamako, residents were jubilant over the airstrikes as they envisioned France taking care of Mali’s insurgent problem, while the terrorists also appeared gleeful, contending that the French fell into their trap of luring them to fight in Konna while the insurgents walked right into Diabaly.
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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.