Mali rebel fighters better prepared than first thought: French officials

Initial French estimates of a brief conflict may be revised as militants are not breaking quickly, French airstrikes continue, and more French troops are on the way.

Joe Penney/Reuters
A French army officer (r.) talks to his Malian counterpart outside where a meeting is taking place for the intervention force provided by the ECOWAS grouping of West African states, in Bamako Tuesday.

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French forces bombed an Islamist-held Malian town overnight in an attempt to regain control of a strategic military base, signaling that Al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali may be a tougher force than military analysts in Europe originally believed.

France launched its military offensive against the militants in Mali last Friday. The Islamists have occupied the country’s north since April and recently started working their way south, reports Agence France-Presse.

“French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected,” reports the Associated Press, as airstrike operations last night continued and France said more of its troops based in the region were headed for Mali.

Despite France's five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly on Monday, putting them roughly 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Mali's capital, Bamako. When the air raids began last week, the closest known point they occupied was 680 kilometers (420 miles) from the capital.

"[The French] bombed Diabaly. They bombed the town all night long. I am hiding inside a house," Ibrahim Toure told the AP. "[The bombing] only stopped this morning at around 6 a.m."

On Monday, Benco Ba, a Parliamentary deputy from the Diabaly area said the town was taken by militants on foot, and among them there were many “children” in their early teens.

“We are completely taken aback … there was an important military post there,” Mr. Ba told the New York Times.

French troops increasing

There are currently 750 French troops deployed in Mali, which are expected to slowly increase to 2,500 soldiers, according to the New York Times.

“We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air,” French President François Hollande said today, according to the Times. “We … will keep increasing so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans.”

The AP reports that a 40 to 50 truck convoy carrying French troops entered Mali from Ivory Coast today as “[s]everal thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving in coming days.”

Mr. Hollande told the Times that the deployment of troops from West African states, which will be supported by the French military, could take a “good week.”

When France intervened in the former French colony last week, it fast-tracked a planned international intervention, according to the Irish Times:

Last month the United Nations Security Council condemned the capture of Konna and urged UN member states to assist Mali “in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organisations and associated groups”. The mandate was strongly supported by the 15 member states of the west African regional economic union, Ecowas, who have pledged troops. And the EU has promised to establish a military training mission (EUTMM) to help beef up Mali’s own weak army. The idea had been to put such a force in place by September, but France’s timely decision to avert the immediate threat to Bamako has brought the whole process forward. It now has some 400 troops in Bamako, and a further 1,000 from Burkina Faso and Niger were due yesterday.

The decision to take action has majority public support in France. The Christian Science Monitor notes a French opinion poll yesterday showing 63 percent support of the intervention in Mali, and 37 percent opposed.

French President François Hollande’s administration claims the intervention should take “a matter of weeks.” The French daily Le Monde noted in a Monday column that current public approval for intervention could wither if the war is drawn out. “One knows how these military interventions begin.… [But] one never knows how they end. Or rather, one knows that a lot of them have turned out very badly,” reports the Monitor.

[Jean-François Daguzan, deputy director of the think tank Foundation for Strategic Research in France] says the current public support Hollande benefits from could shrink if the French military were to suffer heavy casualties or if Islamist militants were to retaliate with terrorist attacks on France’s soil. It's a scenario that is not unthinkable.

"Islamist groups based in the Maghreb have planned attacks on France in the past, and there is a risk of a terrorist attack in response to the intervention, now or at a later date,” says Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

An Islamist group in Mali said yesterday “France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," which may feed fears for an attack on French soil. However, Bloomberg News reports that the risk may be more regional with the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

“I don’t see [AQIM] themselves launching attacks in France,” said [Louis Caprioli, the former head of DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit], who now advises Paris-based security company Geos. “They run around in their four-by-fours in the desert and they haven’t set up training camps like we saw in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen. The real risk is in the region. One can certainly see a risk for French interests throughout West Africa.”

[Interior Minister Manuel Valls] said there hadn’t been any recent arrests linked to the situation in Mali, but that police were surveilling known militants and websites.

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