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 Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that President Francois Hollande “…wanted a reorganisation 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 north-eastern town of Kidal effectively forced officials in Paris to delay the pull out.
Although the French-led Serval operation, which saw eight 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 Barkhan, 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, armoured vehicles and transport planes will be used in the operation, with the headquarters stationed in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
While France plans to launch operation Barkhan in the coming days, tensions in the northern region of Mali have increased over the past week amidst reports of renewed fighting.
On Friday, Malian government officials confirmed that armed groups in northern Mali have begun to regroup, a move that is in violation of a recent truce signed between them and the government. A government statement released by Mali’s state-owned news agency indicated “corroborating information details military gatherings and even advances by troops from armed groups in certain locations in the north,” adding “such acts are unacceptable because they violate the ceasefire agreement of May 24” between the Malian government and armed groups. The truce was brokered after fighting erupted between the army and militants in the northeastern desert town of Kidal.
According to officials in Bamako, the mobilizations in the north come “a few days ahead of the opening of inclusive talks planned in Algiers from July 16.” The talks were announced late Wednesday by Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra during a visit to Burkina Faso and are aimed at restoring stability in the north.
On the ground sources have also reported that fighting broke out on Friday between two of the movements due to participate in the upcoming discussions. According to Mohamed Ould Mataly, who represents one wing of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), the Tuareg rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was attacking “our positions.” Mohamed Ag Rhissa, spokesperson for the MNLA in Kidal, confirmed that “…clashes are taking place between Anefis and Tabankor.” Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a defence ministry adviser also confirmed that clashes had taken place, adding that the Malian army was not involved.
The latest incidents are likely to further increase the already high tensions, with further clashes between the two groups likely to occur in the coming days. They also highlight the on going fragility of Mali’s security and relations between the government and northern rebel groups.