Category: Sahara Land of Mali


January 14, 2013

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Despite a punishing bombardment by French warplanes, al-Qaida-linked insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, seizing a strategic military camp that brought them far closer to the government’s seat of power.

Declaring France had “opened the gates of hell” with its assault, the rebels threatened retribution. “France … has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,” said Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the rebel groups controlling the north, speaking on radio Europe 1.

French fighter jets have been pummeling the insurgents’ desert stronghold in the north since Friday, determined to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The Islamist fighters responded with a counter-offensive Monday, overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the Segou region, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety. France expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat. But the intense assault, including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who were only 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the capital, Bamako, in the far south.

The rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn’t hold them back,” said Le Drian, the French defense minister. Mali’s military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency in the West African nation began almost a year ago. While the al-Qaida-linked extremists control the north, they had been blocked in the narrow central part of the landlocked nation.

They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces. In response to the insurgent advances, Mauritania, which lies to the northwest of Mali, put its military on high alert. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks. Even Algeria, which had earlier argued against a military intervention, was helping France by opening its air space to French Rafale jets.

Many of Mali’s neighbors, who had been pushing for a military intervention to flush out the jihadists, had argued that airstrikes by sophisticated Western aircraft would be no match for the mixture of rebel groups occupying northern Mali.

Leaders of ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, stressed that the north of Mali is mostly desert, and that it would be easy to pick off the convoys of rebel vehicles from the air since there is almost no ground cover.

Monday’s surprise assault and the downing of a French combat helicopter by rebel fire last week have given many pause. Just hours before Diabaly fell, a commander at the military post in Niono, the town immediately to the south, laughed on the phone, and confidently asserted that the Islamists would never take it.

By afternoon, the commander, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, sounded almost desperate. “We feel truly threatened,” he said. He said the rebels approached Diabaly from the east, infiltrating the rice-growing region of Alatona, which until recently was the site of a large, U.S.-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation project.

French aircraft bombed a rebel convoy 25 miles (40 kilometers)) from Diabaly late Sunday, the commander said. “This morning we woke up and realized that the enemy was still there. They cut off the road to Diabaly. We are truly surprised — astonished,” he said.

It was unclear what happened to the Malian troops based at the military camp in Diabaly. The commander said that he had not been able to reach any of the officers at the base, raising fears they were massacred.

A French squadron of about 150 troops and armored vehicles stationed in neighboring Ivory Coast was headed to Bamako to help with the offensive in Segou, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the French military in Paris. The troops were joining the 550 French forces already in Mali, said an African diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The French national being evacuated from Segou said the email she received from the French Embassy indicated that small groups of rebel fighters were already heading to Segou, a drive that normally takes two to three hours.

Mali’s north, an area the size of France, was occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels last April following a coup in the capital. The international community has debated what to do, with most foreign powers backing a U.N. Security Council resolution in December that called for training the Malian armed forces before any military intervention was launched. Diplomats said no intervention could happen before September.

All that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south, one on the mostly east-west axis of Douentza to the garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, and a second heading from a locality north of Diabaly toward Segou.

If either Segou or Mopti were to fall, many feared the Islamists could advance toward the capital. French President Francois Hollande authorized the airstrikes, which began Friday, initially concentrated in the north. France has sent in Mirage jets stationed in Chad that can carry 550-pound (250-kilogram) bombs.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday that the United States has “a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are,” including in Mali, adding that the U.S. is already providing intelligence-gathering assistance to the French in their assault on Islamist extremists.

Besides France and the U.S., 11 other nations have pledged troops or logistical support. Britain over the weekend authorized sending several C-17 transport planes to help France bring more troops. “Not a half hour goes by when we don’t see a French plane either taking off or landing,” said Napo Bah, a hotel worker in Sevare, the central town that is a launch pad for the operation. “It’s been a constant since last week, when they authorized the military operation.”

At least 30,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since the insurgents began moving south last week, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey. __ AP writers Greg Keller and Jamey Keaten in Paris, and Lolita C. Baldor aboard a U.S. military aircraft, contributed to this report.

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After the downfall of Kadhafi, many Touaregs who once relied on his largesse are now heading back to Mali.

By Jemal Oumar for Magharebia in Nouakchott – 05/09/11

With increasing swaths of Libya coming under control of rebel forces, many Malian Touaregs accused of supporting Moamer Kadhafi are now returning home.

“Scores of cross-desert vehicles entered Malian soil at a late hour last Thursday (August 25th) carrying tens of Malian young people,” Timbuktu resident Brahim al-Ansari told Magharebia.

“However, we don’t know whether they are fleeing the Libyan war after the fall of Tripoli at the hands of revolutionaries or they are gunmen who hail from the area and who want to return and settle there,” al-Ansari added.

Residents of some villages in north-eastern Mali, on the border with Niger, said they saw a group of about 10 vehicles crossing the border. Outhman Ould Aweysoun, a trader in Bokossa village in the Kidal region of Mali, said he saw “a convoy of vehicles under the command of a Touareg military officer holding the rank of lieutenant colonel in the pro-Kadhafi Libyan army”.

“Those vehicles passed by without talking to the local residents and without getting water supplies or anything else. Those vehicles were without number plates,” Ould Aweysoun said.

Analysts have expressed concern that the convoys could be involved in arms trafficking. However, experts downplayed the likelihood that the returnees could spark a new Touareg rebellion because of the sudden death of Touareg rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga.

“The talk about a possible start of the rebellion is excluded for the time being because Touaregs will now be busy looking for a new leader capable of unifying their ranks and having the same kind of charisma that Bahanga had,” security expert Iselkou Ould Rajel said.

“The other option that can be thought of is that those Malian military personnel are returning with these weapons to sell them to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and integrate into Malian locals for two reasons,” he added.

Ould Rajel said the Touaregs could either sell the weapons to earn a profit or dispose of them to “avoid a reaction from the Malian army that is prepared to attack them with the first sign of any military action that may hinder the major development project that the Malian government started to execute in early August.”

Some Malian security experts speculated that these armed vehicles could indicate a desire on the part of the fugitive Kadhafi to open a new front against NATO out of northern Mali where he has strong ties with the local Touareg and Arab population.

“The friendly relations that Col. Kadhafi has always had with the residents of that area, where he invested in several projects and built a number of infrastructure, made the local Touaregs and Arab population owe allegiance to Kadhafi more than they do to the Malian state which they belong to,” political analyst Betar Ould Naji said.

“It was Kadhafi who supported Touareg rebels against the Malian state, providing them with weapons, and opening the Libyan borders for them at the expense of Libyan citizens,” he added. “It was also him who convinced them to disarm and sign the agreement with the Malian government. Therefore, he considers himself to be their king.”

Meanwhile, some northern Mali residents expressed their willingness to protect Kadhafi in the event he fled Libya.

“I’m ready to provide shelter for Kadhafi rather than abandon him because we’re not mean,” one Gao resident told Jeune Afrique. The magazine also quoted two other Gao residents as saying they were “prepared to protect Kadhafi”.

Analyst Mohamed Ould Taqi said that Malians sympathize with Kadhafi because “they don’t know the size of destruction he has caused to his own people. In addition, the residents of those regions didn’t know any investments or assistance before Kadhafi, who wanted with such moves to control the Malian government.”

“Things will change now that the Malian government has launched the major development project in northern regions,” Ould Taqi said. “As a result, the loyalty of local population to the government will be enhanced, and the young people will be a part of the production process; something that will create difficulties for al-Qaeda to recruit them.”

Source: Magharebia.
Link: http://www.magharebia.com/cocoon/awi/xhtml1/en_GB/features/awi/features/2011/09/05/feature-02.