France's move into Mali follows push south by jihadist fighters
Paris and UK warn their citizens to leave country following rebels' capture of village that had been held by Malian army
By Nick Hopkins
January 11, 2013
Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine, mainly composed of Tuaregs, stand guard during a hostage handover outside Timbuktu, Mali. Photograph: AP
Just before Christmas, the United Nations authorised the deployment of a 3,300 strong African-led military force to buttress the Malian army against the rebels who had taken over the north of the country; the decision came a few months after the French had called for an EU military training mission in Mali, due to deploy towards the end of this year, to provide further help.
This could, and may still, involve a small number of British army experts.
But events this week in the former French colony have overtaken these initiatives and have seen the French president, Fran?ois Hollande, approve military action against the rebels and the al-Qaida-linked jihadists who have had control of the north of the country since last April.
A status quo of sorts appeared to have been established, but that has been wrecked.
Taking everyone by surprise, the jihadists pushed towards and captured Konna, a village in the centre of the country that had been held by the Malian army and is considered on the periphery of the densely populated south of the country, which was thought beyond the reach of the al-Qaida fighters.
Not any more, which is why Paris is in a panic, and has warned all French citizens to get out of the country as soon as possible. The UK has followed suit.
And if the jihadists are not stopped in their tracks, the US and EU may yet get drawn into an emerging crisis in a country that some security analysts regard as a dangerous new frontier for Islamic extremism in the post-Afghanistan era.
The attack this week was certainly audacious. Konna is barely 25km from a military base at S?var?, where the French military is understood to have been flying personnel and supplies this week.
At the moment, it is difficult to know exactly who is behind this new push, but it is likely the group of hardcore jihadists fighting under the broad banner of 'al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb' are principally involved.
They brought with them the tactics of terror - kidnappings of westerners and the imposition of harsh sharia law in the places over which they have control.
They have been supported by thousands of Tuareg tribesmen, many of whom have returned to Mali last year after being recruited by Muammar Gaddafi to support his regime. Paul Melly, who has written on Mali for Chatham House, said: "This is the first serious attempt by the jihadist groups to push towards the more densely settled south of Mali.
"If they were to break past Konna and seize Mopti, one of the most important towns in Mali, that would be a major blow to morale as well as a military setback."
"Several jihadist groups are active in northern Mali. Ansar Dine, which is mainly composed of local Tuaregs, may be seeking to bolster its hand in negotiations with the government, which it recently began but then suspended.
"But the other jihadist factions, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, are largely foreign-led and have not been engaged in talks. Following December's UN vote to authorise a west African intervention force, the rebels may be trying to seize as much ground as they can before international troops arrive to help the government mount a push to restore its authority in the north."
Mali has been causing quiet concern in the UK for some time, as the intelligence agencies have monitored the disintegration of al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan and its reconstitution, in part, in Africa and the Gulf.
Last month, the US general Carter Ham said: "As each day goes by, al-Qaida and other organisations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali. There is a compelling need for the international community, led by Africans, to address that."
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, was even more stark.
"Northern Mali is at risk of becoming a permanent haven for terrorists and organised criminal networks where people are subjected to a very strict interpretation of sharia law and human rights are abused on a systematic basis."
Which is why the French are in a hurry to act now - and why the west dare not regard the problems in Mali as a little local difficulty that can be easily ignored.
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