UPDATED: Another day, more mass murder by the Islamist hordes. This time it’s in Algeria, in support of Al-Qaeda in Mali.
AMAKO, Mali (AP) — “The battle to retake Mali’s north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists.
At the same time, nations in West Africa authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September.
“A halting blow has been delivered, and heavy losses have been inflicted on our adversaries, but our mission is not complete,” French President Francois Hollande said after a three-hour meeting with his defense chiefs in Paris. “I reiterate that it consists of preparing the deployment of an African intervention force to allow Mali to recover its territorial integrity.”
The sudden military operation is a reversal of months of debate over whether or not Western powers should get involved in a military bid to oust the militants, who took advantage of a coup in Mali’s capital in March to capture the north. As recently as December, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned against a quick military operation. Diplomats said that September would be the earliest the operation could take place.
All of that went out the window this week when the fighters pushed south from the town of Douentza, which demarcated their line of control, located 900 kilometers (540 miles) from the capital. By Thursday, they had succeeded in advancing another 120 kilometers (72 miles) south, bringing them nearly face-to-face with the ill-equipped and ill-trained Malian military in a showdown that couldn’t be ignored by the international community.
In a statement released Saturday, the bloc representing nations in West Africa, ECOWAS, said they had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said they made the decision “in light of the urgency of the situation.”
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali’s defense minister, said on Saturday that he was at the Bamako airport to receive a contingent of French special forces from one of their tactical units. Residents in the town of Sevare, near the line of control, said they had seen planes of white people arriving, whom they assume were French soldiers.
Hundreds of French troops were involved in the operation, code-named “Serval” after a sub-Saharan wildcat, officials in Paris said.
“The situation in Mali is serious,” Le Drian said in Paris. “It has rapidly worsened in the last few days … We had to react before it was too late,” he added.
French intelligence services had detected preparations for what they described as a “major offensive” organized and coordinated by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. After a large convoy of vehicles were spotted heading toward the strategic town of Mopti on Thursday, France sent in its first unit to the Central Malian town to support the Malian combat forces, Le Drian said.
Then on Friday, Hollande authorized the use of French air power following an appeal from Mali’s president. French pilots targeted a column of jihadist fighters travelling in pickup trucks, who were heading down toward Mopti from Konna. He said that the helicopter raid led to the destruction of several units of fighters and stopped their advance toward the city.
Overnight Saturday, air strikes began in the areas where the fighters operate, Le Drian said, led by French forces in Chad, where France has Mirage 2000 and Mirage F1 fighter jets stationed. Residents in the town of Lere, near the Mauritanian border, confirmed that it had been bombed.
Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for nearly a decade, operating out of Mali’s lawless northern desert. They did not come out into the open until this April, when a coup by disgruntled soldiers in Bamako caused the country to tip into chaos. The extremists took advantage of the power vacuum, pushing into the main towns in the north, and seizing more than half of Mali’s territory, an area larger than Afghanistan.
Turbaned fighters now control all the major northern cities, carrying out beatings, floggings and amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did.”