France joins fight against Mali Islamists, Hollande says
French troops are backing the Malian army's counter-offensive against Islamists who control the country's north, President François Hollande confirmed on Friday. Mali's Defense Ministry said the army has regained control of the key town of Konna.
- French troops join Mali's fight against Islamist "terrorist elements", Hollande says.
- Mali's army retakes control of the strategic central city of Konna.
- Mali declares state of emergency.
- West African regional bloc ECOWAS authorises deployment of troops to Mali.
- The United States, Britain and the African Union voice support for French move
- Interim President Dioncounda Traoré to meet Hollande for talks next week in Paris
French troops are backing the Malian army's counter-offensive against Islamist rebels who control the country's north, President François Hollande confirmed on Friday.
“French army forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements,'' Hollande said from the Elysée presidential palace, adding that the French operation would last “as long as necessary” and was aimed at protecting the citizens of Mali as well as the 6,000 French nationals thought to be in the country.
Troops from Nigeria and Senegal are also reportedly taking part in the operations.
Mali's army retook control of the strategic central city of Konna from the Islamists, a Defense Ministry official said late on Friday. The rebels took control of the city on Thursday.
Konna, a strategic point 600 km (375 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, is the last buffer between the rebels and Mopti, the main town in the region and which is seen as the gateway to the country’s north.
Interim President Dioncounda Traoré declared the start of a 10-day-long state of emergency following the launch of the counter-offensive. He is expected to meet Hollande for talks on the crisis Wednesday in Paris.
International support for French move
Britain supports France's decision to send troops to halt a "rebel advance", Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday on Twitter, while the White House issued a statement saying it shared France's goal of denying terrorists safe haven in Mali. The African Union also welcomed the French move.
Earlier in the day, Hollande announced that France would heed Mali’s request for military assistance but within the framework of a UN Security Council resolution.
“We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence,” Hollande said, in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists.
“I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations Security Council resolution. We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues,” Hollande said.
France has urged its citizens and non-essential diplomatic staff to leave the country.
The French move came after Mali, a former French colony, had called on Paris to intervene after Islamists wrested control of the northern town of Konna from the Malian army on Thursday in some of the worst fighting the country has seen since militants took control of the north nine months ago.
News of the fall of Konna sowed panic in Mopti and Sévaré, the latter the site of a large military barracks and airport. The towns lie at the crossroads between Mali’s desert north and the greener, more populous south.
The UN Security Council previously convened emergency consultations in New York and agreed on a statement in which the members “express their grave concern over the reported military movements and attacks by terrorist and extremist groups in the north of Mali". It urged UN members “to provide assistance to the Malian Defence and Security Forces in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organisations and associated groups”.
The UN Security Council has approved, in principle, the idea of an international military intervention in the north, though it has urged African nations to step up detailed planning.
But a UN-sanctioned intervention by African troops is unlikely before September due to logistical constraints, UN sources have said.
Peace talks delayed
The continued fighting could derail hopes of a breakthrough at peace talks between the Malian government, the rebels and separatist Tuaregs that were scheduled to start in Burkina Faso on Thursday but which have been postponed until January 21.
Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister and regional mediator in the crisis, on Thursday called on the parties to respect a ceasefire deal agreed on December 4 and said the fighting posed a threat to talks.
“The climate of confidence has been greatly degraded, and I am very worried that these talks will not bear fruit,” he told reporters in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou.
Ansar Dine, one of the main rebel factions, last week ended its ceasefire because of the plan for military intervention.
Once an example of democracy and development in turbulent West Africa, Mali was plunged into crisis by a March 2012 coup that allowed Tuareg rebels to seize the north, demanding an independent homeland. Their rebellion was later hijacked by their Islamist allies.
Bickering among Mali’s political elite over a roadmap to end the post-coup transition is causing paralysis and damaging efforts to unite the country with elections to choose a replacement for a caretaker government.
Thousands of people took to the streets in Bamako on Wednesday calling for an end to the political crisis, blocking the city’s two main bridges. The government responded on Thursday by shutting down schools in Bamako and Kati until further notice.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)