French special forces battle rebels in central Mali
A major French ground offensive got under way in Mali on Wednesday, with French special forces clashing with Islamist fighters in the central Malian town of Diabaly amid reports of rebels hiding in houses among civilians.
- French special forces engage in combat with rebels in town of Diabaly.
- Rebels remain in city of Konna, contrary to reports from Malian army.
- Islamist rebels cut communication lines in main northern city of Gao.
- Hollande says war in Mali is "necessary" and "legitimate".
- The ICC has opened an investigation into war crimes committed in Mali since last year’s armed uprising saw northern Mali fall to rebel groups.
French special forces clashed with Islamist rebels in a central Malian town just 400 kilometres north of the Malian capital of Bamako on Wednesday at the start of a major ground offensive in the West African nation amid mounting fears that jihadist fighters were merging into civilian populations.
Wednesday’s ground fighting came on the sixth day of the French military intervention in Mali and centred around the town of Diabaly, which had turned into a rebel stronghold in recent days.
Reporting from Bamako, FRANCE 24’s Catherine Norris Trent said French special forces had been engaging in combat with Islamist fighters inside the town.
“From what we understand, Islamist fighters there have been hiding in some of the houses alongside villagers,” said Norris Trent. “So it’s more difficult for the French forces to target them without resulting in civilian casualties.”
Senior French military officials have acknowledged that the rebels could hide behind civilians. In an interview with the French RTL radio, Admiral Edouard Guillaud said militant groups have a history of taking human shields. But he stressed that France would do its utmost to avoid civilian casualties. “When in doubt, we will not fire,” he said.
Fears of civilians getting trapped in the fighting came as the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation on Wednesday into war crimes committed since an armed uprising following the March 22, 2012 coup led to the fall of northern Mali to a motley mix of rebel groups - some of them linked to al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
According to ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the investigation will focus on northern Mali, where there have been widespread reports of murder, rape, mutilation and summary executions in Islamist controlled regions over the past nine months.
Fierce fighting in western Mali
Meanwhile, in the first sign of a possible fallout of the Malian conflict, Islamist militants attacked and occupied a natural gas complex in neighbouring Algeria on Wednesday, holding 41 foreign nationals hostage.
According to the Mauritanian ANI news agency, which has regular direct contact with AQIM militants, a spokesman for an AQIM brigade said, "The operation was in response to the blatant interference by Algeria and the opening of its air space to French aircraft to bomb northern Mali.”
The kidnappings came as Mali’s neighbours were braced for a humanitarian and security fallout from the conflict, notably in Algeria - which shares a 1,300 kilometre border with Mali - and Mauritania, which shares a 2,200 kilometre border with western Mali.
French defense officials have acknowledged that troops have been encountering fierce resistance particularly in western Mali.
In an interview with RTL radio on Wednesday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Islamists groups in western Mali “are the toughest, most fanatical, better organised, more determined and well equipped. It’s going to be difficult”.
At a press conference on Tuesday night, Le Drian said that the town of Konna had not been completely recaptured from jihadists, as the Malian army had previously announced.
The fall of Konna last week prompted the French intervention, which has now entered a sixth day.
Analysts said the first ground battles would likely concentrate around Konna and Diabaly, which fell to an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group on Monday.
Hollande says ground offensive ‘both necessary and legitimate’
In recent weeks, France has been pushing hard for a deployment of a West African regional ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] mission in Mali.
Several neighbouring countries have pledged to take part in the mission, including Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo and Chad, which has said it would be sending some 2,000 troops. The regional troops are expected to start arriving later this week.
On Tuesday, France said that it had 800 soldiers deployed in Mali and would build up to a 2,500-strong force.
Amid fears that France could get bogged down in a long, messy conflict in Mali, French President François Hollande has defended the ground offensive, calling it “both necessary and legitimate”.
In an annual address to the French press on Wednesday, Hollande said France’s intervention was necessary to stop Islamists, and had the full backing of Europe and the United Nations.
“France will not be alone,” he said, addressing fears that France has been abandoned on the battlefield by Western powers.