French tanks head towards northern Mali

Bate Felix (@BateEtah/Twitter)

France deployed a convoy of armoured tanks towards Mali’s restive north from the capital Bamako on Tuesday, as part of an expanding joint Malian-French offensive to retake the region from Islamist rebels.


A convoy of French tanks rolled towards Mali’s restive north on Tuesday as part of a growing Malian-French offensive to retake the region from Islamist rebels. Earlier in the day, France’s defence ministry also announced plans to increase the number of troops it has on the ground to 2,500.

France’s bold decision to bolster its military presence in Mali came as French President François Hollande was in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for an official visit. Speaking at a press conference in Dubai, Hollande said that France’s intervention in the unstable West African country had three main goals.

“Our objectives are as follows,” Hollande said. “One, to stop terrorists seeking to control the country, including the capital Bamako. Two, we want to ensure that Bamako is secure, noting that several thousand French nationals live there. Three, enable Mali to retake its territory, a mission that has been entrusted to an African force that France will support.”

Hollande added that France would not end its intervention in Mali until the country was “safe”.

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Speaking at a press conference in Paris later on Tuesday, France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian echoed Hollande’s comments, as well as praised the military’s swift action while outlining France’s military strategy in Mali.

“We will continue our airstrikes targeting terrorist groups in the north of Mali... Secondly, we will continue to increase the number of troops deployed in Mali, and thirdly, we are continuing to coordinate with our European partners, who I would like to mention, to accelerate the deployment of African military forces,” Drian said.

The defence minister went on to say that as of Tuesday, France had 800 troops in Mali.

Drian also took the opportunity to pay tribute to Damien Boiteux, a French soldier killed in action on the first day of France’s intervention in Mali. The same day, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault attended a memorial service for Boiteux in the courtyard of Paris’s historic Invalides, which houses a number of museums and monuments dedicated to France’s military.

International support

On Monday, Paris received unanimous backing from the 15-member UN Security Council, as it continued to launch air strikes in northern Mali against Islamist rebels who control the region.

“All our allies have recognised that France is acting in accordance to international law and the UN charter,” French ambassador to the UN, Gérard Araud, told reporters in New York. He insisted that his country's objective was to oversee the “rapid implementation of UN Resolution 2085,” which was adopted last month.

Nevertheless, France and Mali remained largely isolated in the war effort.

French and Malian soldiers on the frontline were still waiting for the deployment of a promised 3,300-strong multi-nation African force.

Army chiefs representing members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were meeting in Bamako, and a Nigerian army spokesman said that the first soldiers from a 900-strong Nigerian force joining the Mali offensive would arrive within 24 hours.

Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also said they would send troops, but France’s Hollande said it would take at least a week before they landed in Mali.

Questions also remained about the future African force’s combat readiness.

Resolution 2085 gave approval for an African-led intervention force, which UN officials said could not be launched until September.

But the Islamist push closer toward the capital of Bamako last week, and France's sudden military intervention to halt the advance, has led many diplomats to predict that Resolution 2085 will be reviewed.

Britain and Canada have further offered military transporters to the French military and the United States said it would go as far as sharing intelligence and logistical support.

New figures by the UN on Tuesday said the 10-month armed conflict in Mali now counted 150,000 refugees and 230,000 internally displaced people.

Algeria closes border

A column of French armoured vehicles, including tanks and troop transport trucks, arrived in the Malian capital from Ivory Coast on Tuesday, while French fighter jets continued to pound rebel targets overnight.

Residents of the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu say Islamists fled before the latest air strikes.

A spokesman for the Ansar Dine Islamist group, said their withdrawal was a tactical retreat to reduce civilian casualties, in comments published on the Mauritanian news website Alakhbar.

However, Islamists now besieged by French bombs struck back in western Mali, capturing the small town of Diabaly from the country's weakened Malian army.

Algeria said it had closed its 2,000-km border with northern Mali to stop rebel fighters from crossing into the country. To the west, Mauritania said it had also sent soldiers to close its border with Mali.

Debate back home

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said parliament would debate the current crisis in Mali on Wednesday, but would not vote on any specific measure. Ayrault added that a preliminary meeting with MPs on Monday showed overwhelming unity among lawmakers on the issue.

Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin has been one of the rare voices to cast doubt on France’s military mission in Mali so far.

The French media has largely agreed with Hollande’s decision to act militarily in Mali, but have began expressing concern about France’s relative isolation in the fight.

Alain Franchon, the director of the leading French daily Le Monde, said the French president had made the right decision by going to war in Mali, but added that “France cannot remain alone” and that operation Serval, as the French offensive is known, “should only go on for a limited time”.

Writing in the Catholic daily La Croix, Jean-Christophe Ploquin expressed French fears more bluntly: “The French army is on the frontline waiting for reinforcements. For how long?”

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