Amid sketchy and conflicting reports of how much territory the jihadists have gained in their southern thrust and to what extent last week's French air-strikes have halted it, BBC News tells us Jan. 16 that French ground forces are now engaged in the battle for the town of Diabaly, just 220 miles north of Mali's capital, Bamako. A convoy of 50 armored vehicles left Bamako overnight for Diabaly, seemingly a joint force of French and Malian troops. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: "Today, the ground forces are being deployed. Until now, we had made sure there were a few ground forces in Bamako to keep our people safe... Now French ground forces are heading up north."
France carried out air-strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali Jan. 11, helping government forces halt a drive southward by the militants who control the country's desert north. France also evidently has introduced ground forces, with President Francois Hollande saying French troops "have brought support this afternoon to Malian units to fight against terrorist elements." He added: "This operation will last as long as is necessary." Combined Malian and French forces turned back a rebel advance, retaking the town of Konna (Mopti region, see map) that had been seized by a mixed force of the militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO, apparently with fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mali's government declared a nation-wide state of emergency as the counter-offensive was launched.
Islamist militants occupying Timbuktu in northern Mali destroyed remaining mausoleums in the ancient city using pick-axes Dec. 23, a leader of the group said. "Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu, Allah doesn't like it," Abou Dardar, head of Ansar Dine, told the AFP. "We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area." (Al Jazeera, Dec. 23) Three days earlier, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to approve an African-led intervention force to oust the Islamist forces from Mali's north. (The Real News, Dec. 20)
The Libyan government closed the country's southern border with Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan on Sunday and declared southern Libya as a military zone. The move was in response to growing lawlessness in Libya's southern provinces of Ghadames, Ghat, Obari, al-Shati, Sebha, Murzuq and Kufra. Representatives of the southern provinces had been boycotting legislative sessions due to the government's failure to assist in curbing the violence in the region. Government officials indicated that the closure would only last until order has restored. There was indication that some of the problems in the southern provinces were due to deteriorating conditions in Mali and the expected international military response.
Mali's prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was forced to resign on state television Dec. 11 after junta troops arrested him for attempting to leave the country. President Dioncounda Traoré appeared on TV to appoint Django Cissoko, a French-educated university professor and presidential aide, as interim prime minister. Diarra's ouster was a show of force by a military that staged a coup in March, just as rebels were seizing the country's desert north. Following his arrest, Diarra was taken to a meeting with coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo, where he was accused both of failing to retake the north and of scheming to to disrupt talks now underway with the rebels.
The government of Mali is now confirmed to be holding direct talks with two of rebel groups that seized control in the country's north, in a bid to resolve the country's political crisis and head off foreign intervention. Top government officials gathered in neighboring Burkina Faso Dec. 4 for preliminary talks with delegates from the MNLA Tuareg separatist group and the radical Islamist organization Ansar Dine. But meanwhile in Washington DC, the chief of the Pentagon's Africa Command, Gen. Carter F. Ham, warned that rebel-controlled northern Mali has become a staging area for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). "As each day goes by, al-Qaeda and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali," Gen. Ham said in remarks at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There is a compelling need for the international community, led by Africans, to address that." (VOA, Dec. 4; NYT, Dec. 3)
As Islamist miltias have established Taliban-like rule in northern Mali since taking the vast territory in March, regional powers have been muddling towards military intervention. On Nov. 21, Reuters reported that "military experts from Africa, the United Nations and Europe have drafted plans to retake control of northern Mali." We are told that "African leaders will this month seek a UN mandate to send a mainly West African force of some 4,000 to Mali to...back military operations to retake swathes of the Sahara desert from rebels." Quoted is Stephen O'Brien, the UK's first special envoy to the Sahel, speaking from Nigeria: "This deep insecurity... we have to recognize that, unless it is checked and it is not met, then it will have the potential for export." He called the Mali crisis was "a universal threat" with "the capability of threatening interests outside the...region." While no other European countries are mentioned, we may assume that France will play a leading role.
We've been waiting for the other shoe to drop in Mali ever since April, when Tuareg rebels seized power in the north, only to be shortly overthrown themselves by an alliance of jihadist militias. Yeah, this is the middle of the Sahara, but how long is the "international community" going to allow an unrecognized extremist-controlled rogue state the size of France to persist? The jihadists continue to up the proverbial ante. Over the weekend, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) advanced into Mopti region, south of rebel-held Timbuktu, seizing the town of Douentza. (See map.) Unbelievably, it appears that this border zone on the edge of the vast rebel territory has been abandoned by the government, and the town was defended only by a local militia, the Ganda Iso (Sons of the Land)—one of several that the region's residents have been organizing autonomously to defend against jihadist aggression or (much more ambitiously) to eventually take back the north. MUJAO also made good on their threat to put to death an Algerian vice consul they had abducted. Mali's government this week reportedly made a formal request for military intervention to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but is apparently refusing to confirm this to its own people, making no mention of it in state media. (AP, Sept. 7; Middle East Online, Sept. 3; MEO, Sept. 2; AFP, Aug. 31)