French forces in Bamako

French forces hit the Islamist rebels in Mali with heavy bombing today, but the rebels still have managed to advance closer to Bamako, Mali’s capital.

Though France currently has about 750 soldiers deployed in Mali, it is steadily sending in reinforcements, and trucks filled with the French military continue to rumble into Mali from neighboring Ivory Coast. The French Defense Ministry has said it will deploy 2,500 soldiers to work with the Malian army and several thousand soldiers are expected from neighboring countries like Nigeria, Niger and Burkina Faso.

French President Francois Hollande, accompanied by his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, traveled to the United Arab Emirates to get assistance from the Arab states in the Mali operation.

It is a measure of the potential danger and reach of the Islamists that France feels the need to conduct such an aggressive military campaign in its former colony in Africa. France claims that if the militants are left unchecked they would overtake Bamako and fighting might spread to other countries.

Fabius has assured his nation that France’s involvement in the campaign will last “a matter of weeks.”  However, considering the skill of the insurgents and the difficulty  reaching them in the rough terrain of the Sahara in northern Mali, his assurance is questionable.

The rebels have killed at least 11 Malian soldiers and shot down one French helicopter, killing the pilot.

“What has really struck us is how up-to-date their equipment is, and the way they’ve been trained to use it,” a French presidential official told the news service Agence France-Presse yesterday.

“At the start, we thought they would be just a load of guys with guns driving about in their pick-ups, but the reality is that they are well-trained, well-equipped and well-armed. From Libya, they have got hold of a lot of up-to-date, sophisticated equipment, which is much more robust and effective than we could have imagined.”

On Monday, Mali Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly said the goal of the operation was to drive out the fighters, not just halt their push south.

“I think in the last four days these jihadists have suffered heavy losses with more than 100 deaths,” Coulibaly told BFM-TV after meeting with Fabius.

“We cannot simply push them back, we have to chase them away,” Coulibaly said. “We simply now cannot allow a time out for these forces to reorganize.”

The latest fighting took place in the small town of Diabaly, where French and Malian forces were trying to retake the town and its strategic Malian military after it was seized by the rebels. Diabaly is about 400 kilometers from Bamako, meaning the rebels are closer than they were last week at the start of the French assault, when they were 680 kilometers away.

“They bombed Diabaly. They bombed the town all night long. I am hiding inside a house,” Ibrahim Toure told the Globe and Mail. Toure irons clothes for a living and happened to be passing through Diabaly on his way to visit relatives, getting caught when the Islamists encircled the town. “It only stopped this morning at around 6 a.m.,” he said.

In the United Arab Emirates, Hollande said French forces that carried out air strikes overnight “hit their targets”.

“We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air,” he said. “We have 750 troops deployed at the moment and that will keep increasing so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans.”


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