As French forces hit rebels in Mali, Paris wants to avoid Europe's Afghanistan (+video)
The poor showing by Mali's Army against Islamist radicals in the key city of Konna this week has France worried enough to send troops.
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The fighting takes place amid concerns that Al Qaeda-linked militants are poised to push south to the strategic, government-controlled cities of Sévaré and Mopti, where many residents have reportedly started to panic.
Analysts say the loss of Sévaré, which hosts a key military base and nearby airport, would make it even more difficult to retake northern Mali – a vast desert expanse where organized criminal networks have linked-up with jihadist groups, netting tens of millions of dollars through kidnapping and control of the lucrative cocaine trade, and often brandishing weapons smuggled from Libya after the fall of Mumar Gaddafi.
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For weeks, Paris urged multilateral action through regional African groupings, the government of Algeria, and the UN – hoping to prevent the Sahel region from turning into what some French worry would be an Afghanistan for Europe.
Yet the poor showing by the Army at Konna this week, where Malian troops had been preparing to fight for months, apparently seized French attention, and today French president François Hollande swung into action, launching airstrikes and deploying troops for “as long as necessary” the head of state said, citing UN Security Council resolutions.
"French Army forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements," added Mr. Hollande. "We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this."
Konna is a small town just south of the de facto frontier between the Islamist-occupied north and the government held-south. While it is of minimal
strategic significance, many analysts view its capture as a troubling indicator of the broader ambitions of the Islamist rebels and the state of the Malian
“If the Islamists take over this region it would be a major, major blow to an already very weakened Mali,”said Rudy Atallah, who has extensive experience in the region and served as Africa Counterterrorism director in the office of the US Secretary of Defense. "Sévaré is home of the 62nd Motorized Regiment of the 6th Military Region. It is also home to Mali's elite fighting force."