Officials in Mali have indicated that following French airstrikes, Islamist fighters have withdrawn from two strategic towns located in the central region of the country. Earlier in the day, the Malian army had announced that it had recaptured the town of Konna, which had initially triggered the French intervention after it was seized by rebels last week. This news was confirmed by residents in Konna who have reported that the Islamists fled the town when the Malian soldiers were deployed. Furthermore, a security source has indicated that Malian soldiers were backed by French air strikes which eased their entry into the town. Now reports have confirmed that another major town, Diabaly, has also been recaptured by the army. On Thursday, reports had confirmed that French forces were bombing Diabaly and that fighting on the streets had continued until 03:00 GMT on Friday. Since then, Diabaly Mayor Oumar Diakite has confirmed that Islamists were reported to be leaving the town and that currently soldiers are in Diabaly in order to carry out security operations. Although the towns are now under the control of the French and Malian armies, the area remains to be unaccessible to independent observers. Aid group Doctors Without Borders has indicated that over the past week, it has been attempting to reach Konna however all the roads that lead to the are have been closed off by the Malian army. So far, no reports have been released as to when these roads will be re-opened.
The recapture of these two towns comes one day after the first one hundred troops of the African force landed in the capital city of Bamako. The soldiers, who are from Nigeria and Togo, are part of a long-planned West African force that will join the fighting alongside the French and Malian armies. In total, regional powers have pledged some 5,800 troops for the African military force. Also on Friday, Spain announced that it will provide military training personnel and a transport plane for the African troops however it did note that the country will not take part in the combat operations. Over the past twenty-four hours, France has increased its troops in Mali to 1,800 while Nigeria has indicated that it will increased its forces to 1,200. Furthermore, sources have indicated that a strong French contingent is currently at Segou, which is located north-east of Bamako. They have been stationed their in order to guard a major bridge which crosses the Niger river. The bridge is a strategic point as the rebels would have to cross it in order to threaten the capital city.
With the week-old intervention in Mali seeing some progress, the United Nation’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has highlighted its fears that over the coming months, the fighting could force some 700,000 people from their homes. The crisis in Mali has already resulted in some 150,000 people leaving and moving to neighbouring countries. A report by the UNHCR indicates that a further 400,000 people could flee Mali, while an estimated 300,000 people would be displaced within the country.
Over the past 24 hours in Mali, it has been reported that French and Malian forces have continued their offensive operations against the militants. Close combat occurred on the streets of Diabaly on Wednesday when battles broke out between the soldiers and the rebels. Diabaly, which is located 350km (220 miles) north of the capital of Bamako, was taken by the Islamists on Monday. Since then, French fighter jets have attacked the rebel position in preparation for the ground assaults that are currently taking place. Currently, the town of Diabaly continues to remain under the control of the rebels. Military sources have also confirmed today that fighting has also erupted between the Malian army, and Islamist insurgents in the central town of Konna. According to sources, the fighting broke out on Wednesday afternoon near the town, whose capture by Islamist rebels last week prompted France to intervene in a bid to drive back the insurgents. Army sources and witnesses have indicated that the operations in both towns has been made more complex due to the fact that the Islamists fighters have merged with the populations and have been using them as human shields.
Officials have announced that on Thursday, 190 Nigerian troops will be flown in from the northern city of Kaduna into Mali in order to help fight the Islamist insurgents in the northern region of the country. This will be the first West African contingent to join France’s anti-rebel operation which was launched in Mali last Friday. In turn, the arrival of the first Nigerian troops will also undoubtedly bring some relief to the French soldiers who are currently receiving only limited support from the fairly weak Malian army. Although it has been reported that 3,300 regional troops will be deployed in the conflict under a United Nations Security Council resolution sources have indicated that this number may reach to over 5,000 troops. Nigeria will lead this West African regional force and it has promised to send a total of 900 troops as well as fighter jets. Chad has confirmed that it will send 2,000 soldiers who will join the anti-rebel operations while Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger and Senegal have also pledged to take part. Togo has also pledged to send troops in which forty Togolese soldiers arrived in Mali on Thursday. France currently has some 1,400 troops positioned on the ground and defence sources have indicated that this number is expected to rise to 2,500.
Although officials in France previously had indicated that this intervention will most likely last weeks and not months, French President Francois Hollande has indicated that Fance’s parliament will hold a vote on the operation if it has to be extended beyond four months. In a separate development, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court has opened a war crimes investigation that will focus on the acts that have been committed in the some of the northern regions of the country since January 2012. Fatou Bensouda has indicated that “at each stage during the conflict, different armed groups have caused grave human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence.” Concluding that “ I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes.”
Yesterday’s kidnapping incident has continued to rapidly unfold over the past twenty-four hours as Algerian forces moved against the Islamic militants holding hostages at a BP gas facility in eastern Algeria. The current disposition is unclear, however what is evident is that this incident is linked as a direct consequence of French military operations in Mali. Several media outlets have reported that four foreigners – two from Scotland, one from France and one from Kenya – along with nearly 600 Algerian workers were freed but that a number of people were killed in the military operation. Ireland’s foreign ministry has also indicate that the Irishman who was also kidnapped has since been freed. Reports earlier on in the day indicated that fifteen foreigners and thirty Algerian hostages had also managed to escape from the plant.
The operation began when Algerian soldiers surrounded the facility, which is located in Amenas, shortly after kidnappers had occupied the facility on Wednesday afternoon. Although the operation was seen by Algerian officials as necessary, many heads of state, whose nationals were amongst the hostages at the remote gas plant, have voiced their concerns. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal called his UK counterpart, Prime Minister David Cameron to say that the operation was under way at 11:30GMT. A spokesman for the Prime Minister has since indicated that Mr. Cameron made it clear that he would have preferred to have been informed in advance however the Algerians have maintained that they had to act immediately. Mr. Cameron has also indicated that the current situation remains to be “fluid, ongoing and very uncertain,” and that Britain “should be prepared for further bad news.” In turn, the White House has also indicated that it is “seeking clarity” on the operation while Japan has demanded that the assault be immediately stopped.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila indicated that the kidnappers were Algerian and that they were operating under the orders of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was a senior commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until late last year. Belmokhtar has since claimed responsibility for launching the attack. Although he was one of the leaders of AQIM, he was pushed out of the organization towards the end of last year and has since set up a group called “Signatories in Blood.” He has also been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners. However currently, the reasoning behind the attack remains to be unclear. One statement, which was released by the hostage-takers, called for an end to the French military intervention that is currently occurring in Mali.
MS Risk continues to monitor the events in Mali, Algeria and throughout West Africa. We encourage that all companies throughout the region follow the previous advice that MS Risk has provided in relation to their safety and security considerations.
Over the past several days, France has continued its advance against Islamist militants in Mali, with airstrikes occurring throughout the central and northern regions of the country. However officials in France have indicated that there are at least two concentrations of armed Islamist rebels that continue to be a concern. The first is the village of Konna, which is located 550km from Bamako. Konna is symbolically important as it was the first place which fell to Islamist militants last week. The second is the town of Diabaly where Islamists moved in after the French air campaign against them began in other locations. On Wednesday, French and Malian sources confirmed that French troops have been fighting rebels in Diabaly in what is the first major ground operation to have occurred since the French intervened last Friday. Diabaly, which is located 350 km (220 miles) north of the capital city of Bamako, was captured from Malian forces by fighters on Monday. They were led by Algerian Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Since then, French war planes have been attacking the rebel positions. Back in Paris, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that “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.” Furthermore, he indicated that the western zone where Diabaly lies is home to “the toughest, most fanatical and best-organized groups.” As such, it is highly likely that the fighting will occur for several days. On the ground sources have also reported that a convoy of 50 armoured vehicles left Bamako overnight while residents in Niono, which is 70km south of Diabaly, have indicated that the French arrived overnight.
Currently, France has some 800 troops on the ground in Mali and Defence sources have confirmed that the numbers are expected to increase to 2,500. Since the start of the intervention, France has also been pushing for the deployment of a West African regional force. A company of 190 Nigerians will be the first to arrive on Wednesday. Followed by West African troops, in which Nigeria will lead the force, with 900 troops out of 3,300. Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Senegal and Togo have also pledged to take part in the intervention. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany have also been aiding France. The UK has provided transport planes and on Wednesday, Germany confirmed that it is providing Transall transport planes as logistical support.
Meanwhile regional security has already been affected by the military intervention in Mali as was witnessed on Wednesday when al-Qaeda-linked fighters attacked a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria in which several foreigners were taken hostage. This type of kidnap incident is in line with previous MS Risk warnings since November 2012. State media has indicated that two people have been killed while seven have been left wounded. Reports have indicated that a Briton was amongst the two foreigners killed in the attack however the Foreign Office in London has indicated that currently it cannot confirm these reports. Reports have also surfaced that the militants are allegedly holding 41 foreigners, including US, French, British and japanese citizens, however these reports have yet to be confirmed. The attack occurred on a British oil giant BP field in Amenas, in the Sahara desert. The gas plant is located 1,300km (810 miles) southeast of Algiers, close to the border with Libya. An Algerian deputy has indicated that five staff members, one French national and four Japanese, have been taken hostage. The Irish foreign ministry has indicated that a man from Northern Ireland and a Norwegian are also among the hostages. Currently, al-Qaeda-linked militants have claimed responsibility for the attack and the kidnappings, indicating that they “are members of al-Qaeda” and that they came from northern Mali. This attack in Algeria seems to be the first reprisal by the Islamists who have vowed to strike back. It also comes shortly after Algerian agreed to support the Mali offensive and opened it airspace to French fighter jets. It has also occurred two days after the country closed its border with Mali.
France’s early intervention into Mali has shaken up the intervention plans. Although the original timetable for the AFISMA intervention for 3,300 West African troops with western logistical, financial and intelligence backing, was not set to be deployed until September, last week’s pleas for help by the Malian government, after Islamist fighters threatened to take over key towns in the government-controlled region, sparked an urgent need to solve the crisis now. In the wake of Mali being declared a state of emergency, France on Friday launched a military intervention to rid the country of the Islamist terrorists who had begun to descend down to the government-controlled southern region. In a speech given in Paris, French President François Hollande confirmed that French troops “have brought support…to Malian units to fight against terrorist elements.” Mr. Holland further indicated that the intervention had complied with international laws and that it had been agreed upon with Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore.
On Friday, French military forces deployed a massive offensive that was aimed at retaking the country. Residents in the town of Mopti confirmed that French troops were helping malian forces prepare for a counter-offensive against Islamists who were stationed in the town of Konna. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that a pilot was fatally injured when Islamist rebels shot down his helicopter near the central town of Mopti. By Saturday, France had stepped up its military intervention. It continued with airstrikes and it sent hundreds of troops into the capital city of Bamako. While on Sunday, France continued to expand its attacks by targeting the town of Gao, which is located in the eastern region of the country.
Since Friday, France has sent around 550 troops to the central town of Mopti and to the capital city of Bamako. They are set to be joined by troops from the neighbouring African states of Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Togo, some of which are expected to arrive in Mali within the coming days. On Sunday, Algeria also authorized French warplanes to use its airspace for bombing raids in Mali. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that Algeria’s cooperation was indicative of the extent of the international support for the intervention in Mali.
As such, MS Risk directs all concerned to review previous security advice. This includes:
- Thinning out non-essential staff and dependents
- Restricting expat and local national internal travel, especially on high speed routes to and from Mopti
- Seeking advice from legitimate security forces.
- Ensuring journey management systems are in place and work
- Reviewing crisis management contingencies and carrying out rehearsals of these plans
- Registration of expatriates with relevant diplomatic missions and seeking advice on what support will be forthcoming (if any) if conditions deteriorate
- Liaison with insurers to know any exclusions or limits to existing cover.
MS Risk remains to be in a position to assist clients where needed with any and all of these actions. Companies in neighbouring countries will need to consider similar actions. Burkina Faso, Benin and Senegal among others have all agreed to commit troops quickly to assist the Malian forces. French troops deployed over the weekend to Bamako are officially in place to protect French citizens but could easily be deployed forward for direct combat. French airstrikes from bases in Chad have continued all weekend. France has raised its level of security alert status globally for citizens and assets. Other contributing nations may see nuisance attacks designed to disrupt movement of forces into Mali or to sway public opinion. This will in turn raise the kidnap threat. Expats in nearby countries should take steps to review their attendance at well-known expatriate locales such as pubs, restaurants and markets to avoid being caught up in any terrorist incident.
While a member of his Cabinet had sparked rumors of a possible involvement in the on-going crisis in Mali, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has officially ruled out what he termed to be any ‘direct’ military mission in Mali. During a press conference held on Parliament Hill, Mr. Harper noted that although Canada, a Nato member, is “very concerned about the situation,” it will instead concentrate its efforts in the region by providing humanitarian aid coupled with the use of diplomatic channels in order to offer assistance to the country. The news comes amidst an official visit by Beninian President Thomas Boni Yayi to Ottawa, where the current Chairman of the African Union (AU) inserted new urgency into finding a solution to the Malian crisis, citing that the current threat exceeds the scope of a planned African force. Although during the press conference Mr. Yayi indicated that he had welcomed the prime minister’s diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, the Canadian Press highlighted the fact that the two leaders disagree on the type of resolution that should be implemented in Mali. This was further emphasized by Mr. Yayi who went on to call for international help in order to curb the terror activity occurring in Africa, including asking for assistance from Nato troops.
Mr. Harper’s announcement of Canada’s intentions in Mali however fall directly in line with remarks made by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who indicated on Monday that Canada is “not contemplating a military mission” in Mali. Rumors of an involvement were sparked after Defence Minister Peter MacKay indicated just last week that Canada would be willing to send military trainers to Mali. So far, he has not made any comments with respect to Mr. Harper’s official announcement.
While Canada appears to be paving a way for minimal intervention, Mr. Harper is not the sole Nato leader who has been reluctant to send “boots on the ground.” In many ways, the timing of an upcoming mission in Mali comes at a time when many countries, such as the United States and several other Nato member states, are in the process of winding down combat in Afghanistan and therefore may be reluctant in re-sending troops to fight a new form of “jihadist war.” In turn Nato took on a second foreign intervention with the 2011 crisis in Libya. As such, it is highly likely that the body, along with its members, will proceed with a cautious approach when it comes to making the final call on Mali.
However it must be noted that while Mr. Harper’s official statement rules out “boots on the ground,” it has left some room for Ottawa to offer some form of assistance, which could greatly benefit Mali. Sources have indicated that foreign governments have held informal discussions with Canadian officials in regards to supplying a small number of military trainers that would assist the mission. In turn, some Western diplomats still believe that Canada will eventually deploy a small number of troops. However so far, the Canadian government has not elaborated on what less ‘direct’ military assistance Mr. Harper may eventually consider. For now, the country’s options are to contribute the necessary equipment that is required for air reconnaissance and logistical purposes, such as night-vision devices. Additionally, Canada has had experience in bringing APC’s into Africa, such as in 2005 when it supplied more than 100 armored vehicles to African peacekeepers in Darfur. Canada has also enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Mali as it has regularly contributed troops to a French-run military training centre there. In turn, sending Canadian troops would aid in liaising with the Malian army as some members speak both French and English, which is seen as a high advantage in a francophone country like Mali. Lastly, Mali was the scene of the 2008 kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay. They were held hostage in the Sahara Desert for 130 days. Their kidnapping occurred around the same time of the kidnapping of two Europeans who were taken hostage by Islamists from the same group. They however were never released and were later killed in captivity. Al-Qaeda’s North African branch later claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the two Canadians. This incident has been seen by many as a key reason as to why Canadian foreign aid to Mali sharply increased from C$25 million to C$100 million annually.
Although the two leaders disagreed on several aspects pertaining to the Malian crisis, Mr. Harper and Mr. Yayi also discussed trade and investment between the two countries as well as how to promote economic growth throughout Africa. An area where they seemed to agree on as the pair had announced a new Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) which will offer protection to investors in both countries which they hope will eventually boost the economic activity between the two nations. The new investment deal, according to Mr. Harper, “will increase investors confidence and bodes well for growth in both of our countries,” Additionally, Canada will also provide funds through the Canadian International Development Agency to aid Being with its structural reforms. It will also assist with efforts to increase the mining development.
Nevertheless, while Canada’s relations with Benin have been strengthened, the crisis in Mali continues to grow while the mission remains to be at a standstill. Overnight Monday, Malian soldiers fired warning shots at Islamist fighters near the town of Mopti, which is located some 650km (403 miles) northeast of the capital city of Bamako. Mopti is the first major town in the southern region of the country that has been hit.
It is therefore increasingly becoming apparent that while the AU and African nations begin to desperately call for a resolution on the Malian crisis before the situation grows completely out of control, many Western states seem to be more hesitant in quickly reacting and more comfortable in their “proceed with caution” role. Perhaps it is a lesson learned from history or perhaps this time, the West is simply not willing to fully engage in fighting this war.