The French-led military intervention in Mali has entered into its third week with French and Malian troops currently advancing towards the town of Gao after earlier retaking the northern town of Hombori. Meanwhile, militant extremists have struck back with the bombing of a strategic bridge in the region.
Official reports have confirmed that French and Malian troops have retaken the town of Hombori, which is located 160km (100 miles) from the Islamist stronghold of Gao. The movement towards Gao follows several days of air strikes which targeted Islamist bases, fuel stock and weapon dumps near the town. While troops are currently on their way to regain Gao, in the west, the French-led forces who recaptured the town of Diabaly on Monday are pushing towards the town of Lere, with the eventual plans of taking control of Timbuktu which lies further north. Gao is just one of three major northern towns, along with Kidal and Timbuktu, where al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have imposed a strict form of Sharia law over the past ten months..
Meanwhile, reports have indicated that rebels have blown up the Tassiga bridge which links Gao to neighbouring Niger. The bridge likes on the quickest route from Niger to Gao. More than 2,000 Chadian soldiers and 500 troops from Niger were planning to use this route in order to deploy and open a second front against the Islamists from the east. Although there is a detour, which is an additional three to six miles, that eventually links to the Niger-Gao road, it is currently unknown which direction these troops will take in order to link up with AU forces in Mali.
A large international troop-build up will continue over the weekend, ahead of a probable French-led air and ground offensive that will take place in Gao and other desert cities. Currently, France has 2,000 troops in Mali. More than 1,000 soldiers from Nigeria are expected to arrive in Mali within the coming days.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed today that Malian and French troops have taken control of two key towns from the Islamist militants: Diabaly and Douentza. However French military officials and local residents have both noted that the town of Diabaly has been riddled with land mines which were placed by militants who were fleeing. Consequently, although the Diabaly is currently under French control, severe security issues remain and travel to the town is unadvised at this time. The town of Douentza, which was taken by Islamist militants in September 2012, is a crossroads town on the way to the rebel bastions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Therefore while it is currently under French control, this may change at any moment as militants in the north continue to attempt to retake control. Therefore at this time, the situation in both towns remains to be tense while threats of attacks and kidnappings of westerners are highly likely to continue. MS Risk strongly advises against all travel to the region of Segou. This is due to terrorist and kidnap threats as well as an increase in troop movement and the possibility of checkpoints and military activity. Malian security forces are also likely to increase their security safeguards over the coming weeks. This will include checkpoints and other controls of movement in Bamako and across the country.
Although the security situation in Bamako remains to be relatively stable, the escalation of hostilities in Mopti, Diabaly and Douentza over the past several days has heightened tensions throughout the country. The country also continues to face challenges, including food shortages, internally displaced persons and the continued presence in northern Mali of factions that are linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The state of emergency, which was declared on 11 January 2013, remains to be in effect and it enables the government to take extraordinary measures in order to deal with the crisis. MS Risk advises against all travel to Mali. For those who remain in the country, it is advised to monitor local media as the situation remains to be fluid.
Malian forces have gained control of the central town of Diabaly, securing it from Islamist militants who have taken control of much of northern Mali.
Though this is a critical advance, the situation is confused at the moment. Parts of Diabaly’s population are sympathetic to the Islamists, and the rebels are suspected to be taking refuge in the forests beyond the city’s limits. French and Malian troops continue to monitor the town’s outksirts.
Mali was relatively stable, regarded as a “model democracy,” until the democratic government was overthrown in a 2012 coup.
Islamist rebels took advantage of the power vacuum to establish themselves in the north. Following the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Tuareg mercenaries returned to Mali, along with members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The militants imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law which included banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also destroyed churches and damaged historic tombs and shrines.
On Saturday, demonstrators in Gao killed the chief of Islamic police, avenging the Islamists’ killing of a local journalist who was suspected of giving information to the Malian army.
France is considering sending up to an additional 2,500 in addition to the 2,000 troops currently in Mali. Of the estimated 5,800 African troops that have agreed to assist in Mali, only about 100 soldiers have arrived. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has reported that it has 3,300 regional troops on standby, and has urged the United Nations to provide immediate logistical and financial support for African troops. Canada and Britain are deploying military transport aircraft, and Russia has offered logistical support. While US policy prohibits direct military aid to Mali, until leaders are chosen through an election, the nation has dispatched 100 military trainers to six African nations who are sending troops.
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.