French warplanes were reported 0n Tuesday to have carried out airstrikes overnight against Islamist fighters who overran a strategic village and military post in central Mali on Monday, offering an indication that the war against extremists who have carved out a jihadist state in the nation’s north could be a long and difficult one.
The assessment seemed to underpin a call by France on Tuesday for Arab support to bolster an African force to pursue the campaign against the insurgents.
“We — not just the French, but all nations — have to combat terrorism,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said during a visit to the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf, announcing that donors would meet later this month, probably in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss financing an offensive against the rebels in Mali, Reuters reported.
“Everybody has to commit to oneself in fighting against terrorism. We are pretty confident that the Emirates will go into that direction as well,” Mr. Fabius said.
The extremists’ success on the ground on Monday came just hours after Mr. Fabius said confidently that France had blocked “the advance of the terrorists,” accomplishing its first mission in the conflict. But the French defense minister acknowledged that the military situation was different. A column of militants had pushed within about 50 miles of one of Mali’s largest cities, forcing France to evacuate its citizens in the area and bringing the Islamists a step closer to the capital — closer, in fact, than they had been before French forces entered the fight.
Having entered the war quickly after an urgent plea from the Malian government, France now finds itself facing a well-equipped force of Islamist fighters — with little immediate help from its allies to overcome them.
Also in the United Arab Emirates for a one-day meeting to discuss trade and the sale of advanced French Rafale warplanes, President François Hollande said on Monday that French jets had “hit their targets” in overnight strikes on rebel forces, Reuters said.
“We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air,” Mr. Hollande 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.” French defense officials said the French force would be increased gradually to 2,500 soldiers, backed by armored vehicles.
Mr. Hollande said a deployment of troops from West African states, to be supported by the French military, could take a “good week”
For its part, the United States has long pledged logistical support but no troops. West African nations have promised 3,300 soldiers to fight alongside the Malian Army, but they must be gathered, transported, trained and financed, and there have long been concerns about their readiness for the task ahead. The European Union has promised 250 military trainers to aid the Malian Army, but it has yet to deploy them, a decision that may not come before a special foreign ministers’ meeting later this week.
Moreover, the French mission is an ambitious one. Beyond pledging to stop the Islamists from pushing ever deeper into Mali — a more challenging task in itself than French officials initially suggested — France has also vowed to help restore Mali’s territorial integrity, an apparent reference to driving the Islamists out of their vast, northern stronghold, an area twice the size of Germany.
Mr. Fabius said on Sunday that the French engagement would last only a matter of “weeks,” but as French forces wait for their African counterparts to ready themselves, President Hollande may find it hard to keep his vow not to use French ground forces in northern Mali.
“None of the conditions for success have been met,” Dominique de Villepin, a former French prime minister, warned Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche. “Stopping the jihadists advance south, retaking the north, eradicating” terrorist “bases — these are all different wars,” he wrote.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister, said that the French forces had driven the Islamists out of one village, Kona, but that another column of Islamists had overrun the Malian Army in the village of Diabaly on the western side of the Niger River, a loss Malian officials confirmed.
“Diabaly is in the hands of the jihadists,” said the parliamentary deputy from the area, Benco Ba, on Monday evening. “They’ve burned the church, and they’ve burned the military camp. They’ve entered the houses of the families.”
He said the Islamists had ordered the inhabitants to the village mosque, to pray. “We are completely taken aback by this, because there was an important military post there,” Mr. Ba said. He said the village had been infiltrated by foot, and that the invading force included many “children,” only 13 or 14 years old. French news reports said insurgent positions in the village had been attacked overnight by French warplanes.
The impact of the strikes was not immediately clear. Seeking to turn back the rebels, France has conducted strikes using Mirage warplanes based in the central African nation of Chad and its air force has flown sorties from bases in France using the state-of-the-art Rafale warplanes, according to French news reports. It has also deployed attack helicopters against Islamist forces.
Eduardo del Buey, a United Nations spokesman, said Monday that an estimated 30,000 Malian civilians may have been displaced since the latest fighting began last week.
For now, the French are fighting only from the air in support of Malian troops, while also making airstrikes on northern extremist camps and strongholds deep inside Islamist-held territory, like Gao.
Mr. Hollande’s move to help Mali has earned wide support abroad and in France itself, but he has warned that there could be consequences for the seven French hostages held by extremists in Mali and perhaps even prompt a heightened terrorist threat at home.
France “has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,” Oumar Ould Hamaha, an insurgent leader, told Europe 1 radio. Stirring longstanding fears that the far-flung military operation in Mali could inspire vengeance as far away as Europe, he warned that the intervention had “opened the gates of hell for all the French.”
Still, France has considerable assets to bear, and will get help from Britain and other European allies, as well as accelerated help from the United States.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that assistance could include air and other logistical support, but Defense Department officials said no decisions had been made on whether to help with midflight refueling planes and air transport. American spy planes and surveillance drones are in the meantime trying to get a sense of the chaos on the ground.
Mr. Panetta said that even though Mali was far from the United States, the Obama administration was deeply worried about extremist groups there, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “We’re concerned that any time Al Qaeda establishes a base of operations, while they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately that still remains their objective,” he said.
The French attacks on Gao, an insurgent stronghold in the north, were welcomed by Abdheramane Oumarou, a local counselor reached late Sunday after a day of French airstrikes.
“We are in the best of all possible worlds,” he said. “The planes have been circling Gao since 5 this morning. All of the sites they targeted, they hit. The airport. The warehouses, they destroyed them. These were all sites occupied by the Islamists, and they have been totally destroyed.”
“The Islamists are in hiding. There were many dead,” he added. For the first time since the insurgents overran the town last year, “the population of Gao will sleep soundly, and will even snore.”
In Douentza, a town south of Gao but still inside Islamist-held territory, French strikes have driven the Islamists “into the bush,” said the parliamentary deputy from the region, Fatoumata Dicko. “We are breathing much easier now,” she said.
Earlier on Monday, before the fall of Diabaly, Mr. Fabius, the French foreign minister, said the military effort had three goals: to “block the advance of the terrorists, which is done”; to restore Mali’s territorial integrity, “which will take more time”; and to secure the carrying out of United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Mali crisis.
“If France had not intervened,” Mr. Fabius said, the rebels “could have reached Bamako, with appalling consequences” not only for the Malian population but also for the 6,000 French and other Western citizens living in the capital of the former French colony.
French troops in Mali, deployed mainly in Bamako and in the town of Mopti in the south, include some special forces.
A French analyst, who was briefed on the situation but declined to be identified by name, said the dilemma facing French forces was now whether to maintain a United Nations schedule for West African and Malian troops to seek to recapture the north in the fall after seasonal rains, “which given the current dynamic seems hard to imagine,” or to “speed things up and try to clear the north in the next eight weeks” before the rainy season.
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