On 31 October, France formally ended Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic, almost three years after the military mission was launched in December 2013 in a bid to quell inter-ethnic unrest in the country.
The operation initially ran alongside an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, which was known as MISCA and which later morphed into the UN’s MINUSCA force, which aimed to help restore stability in the capital city Bangui. The mission has however, for the most part, failed to end violence elsewhere in the country, as clashes have continued to erupt in recent weeks and tensions remain high.
At its height, France had more than 2,500 troops from various French units that took part in the mission. In June 2016, France indicated that it had reduced its force in the CAR to 350 soldiers, who would serve as tactical reserve force for the UN peacekeepers, effectively announcing the end of its military mission there. The number of soldiers is due to fall below 300 by early next year with the remaining troops deployed as part of a European military training mission, to support UN drone operations or as a rapid reaction unit supporting the national army.
France’s withdrawal has effectively left security largely in the hands of MINUSCA, the 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, however in recent weeks, criticism of the force has increased, with local people accusing the peacekeepers of not doing enough in order to protect them. The National Assembly president, Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, has expressed concern that the French troops’ departure would exacerbate a deteriorating security climate.
About 3,500 French troops are currently stationed in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger as part of Operation Barkhane in order to fight militancy in West Africa and the Sahel region.
Overview of Operation Sangaris
- 5 December 2013 – Widespread clashes erupted in Bangui, leaving hundreds dead in the streets.
- Christian milita groups, known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) attacked a number of areas in the capital city, targeting Muslims and triggering revenge attacks by the mainly-Muslim Seleka rebel alliance. Seleka fighters has already targeted the majority Christian population, a key reason as to why the anti-Balaka group emerged. Attacks by both sides, mostly targeting civilians, plunged the CAR into a humanitarian, political and security crisis.
- Several hours after the violence broke out, a French operation force began deploying across the country as part of a UN-mandated effort to quell the deadly wave of sectarian violence. The operation was named “Sangaris” after a small red butterfly that is common the region.
- At the time, French President Francois Hollande disclosed that the troops would remain in the country “as long as necessary,” noting however that the operation was “not designed to last.” Paris, which had already deployed troops to Mali in January of that year in order to battle jihadist groups, watched the situation in the CAR continue to deteriorate following the overthrow in March of Francois Bozize by Seleka rebels who were led by Michel Djotodia.
- An initial force of about 1,200 French marines, paratroopers and engineering units was official deployed to back up the AU’s MISCA force, however they quickly found themselves on the Front line. Their mandate was to “disarm all milita and other armed group s that have terrorized the population” and the fist objective was to secure the capital city and tis 4.5 million inhabitants.
- Between February to September 2014 – Combat troops also secured a road link from Bangui to neighbouring Cameroon.
- September 2014 – Un soldiers from MINUSCA took over the MISCA troops.
- 14 February 2016 – Faustin-Archange Touadera is elected president, effectively capping a chaotic political transition. Three months later, President Hollande visited Bangui, declaring that stability “has been restored.” Elsewhere in the country however armed groups continued to plague the population. Former Seleka units remain active and a total disarmament of militia groups appears to be unlikely.
- Since July 2014, the force has been under growing pressure following the emergence of allegations of child rape by French soldiers deployed in the CAR. French prosecutors opened an investigation, however the allegations did not become public until April 2015. Since then, other reports have emerged about troops’ alleged involvement in sexual attacks and giving children food and sometimes small amounts of money for sexual services. Currently, the Sangaris force is subject to three investigations into separate allegations of sexual abuse of children in the CAR. In June 2016, Paris prosecutors also opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that French troops beat up, or stood by while others beat up two people in the CAR.
- France has intervened military in the CAR a number of times. The CAR, which is a former French colony, won independence in 1960.
On Monday (8 February), African forces began a US-led counter-terrorism training programme in Senegal, which is aimed at what a US commander said were rising signs of collaboration between Islamist groups across northern Africa and the Sahel region.
The annual “Flintlock” exercises began only weeks after an attack in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou, which left thirty people dead. The assault on the hotel used by foreigners raised concerns that militants were expanding from a stronghold in northern Mali, towards stable, Western allies, such as Senegal. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters claimed responsibility for the attack, which is just one of several increasingly bold regional strikes that have occurred in the Sahel region. Speaking to reporters on Monday, US Commander for Special Operations Command Africa Brigadier General Donald Bolduc indicated that increased collaboration between militant groups effectively meant that they have been able to strengthen and strike harder in the region. According to General Bolduc, “we have watched that collaboration manifest itself with ISIS becoming more effective in North Africa, Boko Haram becoming more deadly in the Lake Chad Basin (and) AQIM adopting asymmetrical attacks…against urban infrastructure.” He further noted that cooperation has increased as the so-called Islamic State (IS/ISIS) group exploited a power vacuum in Libya to expand its self-declared caliphate, which takes up large areas in Syria and Iraq. He added that “we know in Libya that they (AQIM and ISIS) are working more closely together. Its more than just influence, they (AQIM) are really taking direction from them.” He also stressed the importance of regional cooperation and intelligence-sharing, adding that the United States would help Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria set up a joint intelligence center by the middle of next year. The US already supports a regional task force against Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram. However not all security experts agree that there are emerging alliances between Islamist militant groups, with some arguing that competition between groups has led o more attacks.
This year’s programme, which opened on a dusty airstrip in Senegal’s central city of Thies, involves around 1,700 mostly African special operation forces. Western partners are also participating in the programme, including forces from France and Germany, which are amongst more than thirty countries that are participating. The attacks in Ouagadougou, coupled with a hotel attack in the Malian capital of Bamako in November 2015, have led to a greater emphasis on preparing for urban attacks this year through training to increase cooperation between police and military forces. At the request of African partners, this year’s exercises will also include anti-Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) training. The programme, which has been an annual event since 2005, will run from 8 February until 29. Some exercises will also be held in Mauritania.
According to military sources, Malian troops destroyed two jihadist camps and arrested fifteen suspected militants in what is the latest operation combatting radical Islamist groups near the southern border with the Ivory Coast.
A military officer has reported that “during new military operations in the area, we arrested 15 new jihadists and destroyed a new sanctuary of theirs in the region of Sikasso, on the border with Ivory Coast.” The source further disclosed that amongst the jihadists that were arrested was a radical preacher who “came from Ivory Coast in order to build a mosque in a Malian village where he would impose his law.” Military sources have also reported that troops seized arms, explosives and motorbikes in a raid on another camp near the frontier town of Fakola, which was targeted by militants on 28 June. The attack was later claimed by Islamist group Ansar Dine.
This latest raid also comes after Malian troops last week killed several jihadists in the Sikasso region, which is also located near the border with the Ivory Coast. During that raid, troops also destroyed the insurgents’ camp in a forest straddling the frontier.
While jihadist attacks are normally confined to Mali’s restive northern desert region, since the beginning of this year, militants have also targeted towns bordering Mauritania, in attacks that appear to indicate that militant groups are expanding their areas of operation.
On Sunday, gunmen, identified as Islamic extremists, launched an attack and briefly occupied a village in southern Mali, near the border with Ivory Coast, before being forced out by security forces. This is the second attack to be carried out by suspected Islamic extremists over the weekend, and has prompted Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to convene a meeting of defense officials in the capital, Bamako, in order to discuss the security situation.
Sunday’s attack in southern Mali targeted the village of Fakola, located 15 kilometres (9 miles) north of the Ivory Coast border in the southern region of Sikasso. According to Mamadou Tangara, mayor of the regional capital Sikasso, the militants burned administrative buildings as well as a building that was being used as a local base for military police. Officials have reported that none of the military police officers sustained any injuries as they had left the village prior to the attack beginning. Residents have reported that assailants in the area cut the phone network. By late afternoon, security forces stationed nearby had driven the attackers out. A senior military official blamed the attack on a group of ethnic Peuhls infiltrated by fighters believed to be link to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The military source has suggested that the attackers could be the same group who attacked the village of Misseni in Sikasso earlier this month. The group, known as the Massina Liberation Front, is also suspected of clashing with government troops in the central Mopti region this month and has been blamed for several recent attacks.
On Saturday, at least twelve people, including three soldiers, were killed when suspected extremists attacked the village of Nara, located 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the border with Mauritania. A statement released by the Malian government disclosed that gunfire erupted at around 5:00 AM local time. While the statement did not identify the assailants, a senior army officer has disclosed that military intelligence and initial witness accounts indicate that the attackers were Islamist fighters mainly from the Peuhl ethnic group. On Sunday, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita held a defense council meeting. Officials have since reported that the government will increase security in the border regions with Ivory Coast and Mauritania.
On Monday, the Malian government appealed for calm a day after jihadists ransacked a town near the Ivory Coast border in what is the second attack to occur in the south in less than three weeks. A government statement released Monday disclosed that the army has been deployed to the area to hunt down the militants, who escaped after ending their brief occupation. The statement read, “the government of the republic of Mali strongly condemns these barbaric attacks aimed at sabotaging the actions for peace and stability in Mali… The government…asks the population to remain calm and cooperate with the defense and security forces in their fight against terrorism.”
While incursions in the south remain extremely rare, the group was said to have been behind an ambush that occurred less than three weeks ago in the nearby town of Misseni, when jihadists killed a policeman and hoisted their flag at a military base.
On Thursday, French President Francois Hollande will embark on a trip to three former colonies in West Africa. The official tour comes as his country puts the finishing touches to a military operation aimed at combatting extremist violence in the Sahel region. On Sunday, France’s Defense Minister announced that the country will end its military offensive in Mali, effectively replacing it with a new operation, codenamed Barkhane, which will involve some 3,000 French troops and which will span the largely lawless Sahel region. However in a sign that tensions in Mali are far from over, on Monday the French Defense Ministry confirmed that a French legionnaire died in a suicide attack near the northern town of Gao. This is the ninth casualty that France has suffered in the West African nation.
According to the President’s office, Hollande’s upcoming visit will include stops in the Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad, which is where Barkhane’s headquarters will be located. The French president will begin his African tour in Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast, which is currently on the economic rebound after experiencing a decade of unrest that was sparked by a failed coup in 2002. He will then visit Niger, which includes a stop at a French military base from which surveillance drones are deployed within the region. According to a source close to Hollande, because Niger is surrounded by restive areas – Nigeria to the south, Libya to the north, and Mali to the west – the president will “continue strategic talks on all these crisis areas surrounding the country and establish how we can collaborate to ensure better security in the region.” In the Chadian capital N’Djamena, Hollande will visit the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, which apart from troops, will also mobilize drones, helicopters, fighter jets, armored vehicles and transport planes.
France announced Sunday that its military offensive in Mali will now be replaced by an operation that will focus on the wider and largely lawless Sahel region, and will aim at combatting extremist violence, which is now threatening the entire area.
During a television interview Sunday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that President Francois Hollande “…wanted a reorganization of our troops in the Sahel zone.” France’s Serval offensive was launched in January last year and saw French troops deploy to aid Malian soldiers in stopping al-Qaeda-linked militants and Tuareg rebels from descending further south and advancing on the capital Bamako. While France had initially planned to end operation Serval in May, and redeploy troops to the Sahel region to fight al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, renewed clashes between rebels and the army in the northeastern town of Kidal effectively forced officials in Paris to delay the pull out.
While the French-led Serval operation, which saw nine soldiers die over a period of eighteen months, has widely been deemed a success by the international community, Le Drian indicated that the concern has now shifted to the vast Sahel region, noting the operation aims “to make sure there is no upsurge (in terrorism) as there are still major risks that jihadists will develop in the zone that goes from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau,” adding “the aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security.”
The new “counter-terrorism” operation, which has been codenamed Barkhane, will launch in the coming days and is being implemented in partnership with five countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Some 3,000 French soldiers will take part in the operation in which 1,000 will remain in the northern regions of Mali while the rest will be deployed in the four other countries. Drones, helicopters, fighters jets, armored vehicles and transport planes will be used in the operation, with the headquarters stationed in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
Suicide Attack in Northern Mali
Meanwhile, in what is a sign that security in northern Mali remains fragile, France’s Defense Ministry confirmed Tuesday that a French legionnaire has been killed in a suicide attack in northern Mali. This brings the number of soldiers killed in Mali since 2013 to nine.
A statement released by the Defense Ministry indicated that Serbian-born Dejvid Nikolic, 45, who held French nationality and was part of the Genie 1st regiment, “fell victim to a suicide attack” about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the northern town of Gao on Monday. A suicide bomber in a car targeted French troops who were on a security mission in the Al Moustarat region north of Gao. Seven soldiers were injured in the attack and Nikolic died of his wounds on Monday evening. He had been a legionnaire for more than twenty-five years and served in several hot spots, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. He had also worked in Africa, notably in Gabon and Djibouti. The Defense Ministry stated that his currently mission was his eight abroad. News of the death of the French soldier comes just days before President Francois Hollande is due to travel to West Africa as France prepares to redeploy some of its troops from Mali to the wider and largely lawless Sahel region in a bid to combat extremist violence.