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.
Despite announcing earlier this week that he would visit the town where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan confirmed Friday that that he has cancelled his trip to Chibok, a move that is likely to anger the Nigerian public and further derail his potential re-election bid.
Sources earlier this week indicated that President Goodluck Jonathan would stop in Chibok, located in north-eastern Nigeria, while on his way to a conference in France, which is set to focus on the on going threat from Boko Haram militants. However on Friday, a senior government official indicated that the president, who is under pressure over his government’s failure to rescue the girls, will fly directly to Paris, citing that the visit was called off for security reasons. The president will take part in a summit in Paris convened by French President Francois Hollande. The leaders of Nigeria’s neighbours, including Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, are also scheduled to attend the summit on Saturday, which will also include representatives from the EU, UK and US. A statement released by the French President’s office indicated that the delegates will “discuss fresh strategies for dealing with the security threat posed by Boko Haram and other terrorist groups in west and central Africa.” The cancellation of this visit also underlines just how fragile the security situation is in the north-east despite the on-going military operations, which were launched last May. It is also likely to result in further criticism of the president.
The cancellation of the President’s visit to Chibok comes days after the Nigerian government ruled out negotiations with Boko Haram, over a possible release of prisoners. At a meeting on Wednesday, UK Africa Minister Mark Simmonds indicated that President Jonathan had “made it very clear that there will be no negotiation.”
State of Emergency Extended
On Thursday, the lower house of Nigeria’s parliament, the House of Representatives, approved an extension of the state of emergency in the north eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. Earlier this week, President Jonathan had requested a six-month extension, calling the security situation in the region “daunting” and stating that he was concerned by the mounting loss of life among civilians. The state of emergency, which still needs to be approved by the Senate, effectively provides the military with widespread powers such as detaining suspects, imposing curfews and setting up roadblocks.
The announcement of the extension of the state of emergency came as reports of fresh attacks by suspected Boko Haram militants emerged on Thursday. Witnesses have reported that there had been explosions in Gamboru Ngala, where some 300 people were killed last week in a massacre that has been blamed on Boko Haram militants.
Despite an appeal for intervention from neighboring Niger, on Monday officials in France announced that, for the time being, they ruled out Western military action against Islamist fighters in southern Libya.
Asked about Niger’s recent call for action, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated Monday that there was no question of putting foreign troops into a region that the United States has identified as an increasingly worrisome new haven for al-Qaeda-linked militants. However the French Minister further noted that while France has ruled out Western military action, Western powers are aware of the problem and are drawing up plans in order to help the Libyan government deal with this issue.
Speaking in Paris, Mr Fabius stated “…we are going to have an international meeting in Rome at the beginning of March to give Libya more help because its true that there are terrorists gathering in the south.” Mr Fabius further indicated that officials from Britain, Germany, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and the United States were all involved in talks on aid the Libyan government, adding “we have to fight terrorism everywhere….That does not mean we have to have people on the ground, it means we have to help governments that want to get rid of terrorism, which is the case with the Libyan government.”
The response by officials in France comes after Niger last week called on the West to finish the job they had begun in Libya by dealing with those Islamist groups that have established bases in the southern region of the country since the 2011 overthrow of former dictator Moamer Kadhafi. The call by the Niger government comes shortly after an annual intelligence report, released in December 2013, which indicated that the United States had stated that southern Libya had become an “incubator” for terrorism in a “hothouse” region and described a possible intervention as “within the bounds of the possible.”
A poor, but mineral-rich former French colony, Niger has had to contend with numerous Islamist attacks and kidnappings on its own soil, some of which have threatened the security of its uranium production.
On Tuesday, officials in France vowed to continue their mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) after the death of two elite soldiers, which have highlighted the risks of a mission that aims to disarm rogue rebels who have plunged the country into chaos. The death of the two French soldiers came hours before French President Francois Hollande visited the country.
First French Losses
Antoine Le Quinio, 22, and Nicolas Vokaer, 23, both members of the 8th Parachute regiment that is based in Castres, south western France, died overnight Monday after being caught up in a fierce fire fight during a night patrol in the capital city of Bangui, where sectarian clashes last week killed hundreds. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed the first French losses, stating that they would have no impact on the tactics or the size of the 1,600-strong force that Paris has deployed in its former colony. Claude Bartolone, speaker of France’s National Assembly, told reporters that the soldiers “were injured and very quickly taken to the surgical unit, but unfortunately they could not be saved.”
The French troops, along with African peacekeepers, had launched an operation on Monday to forcibly disarm militiamen who claim to be part of a new national army. After last week’s clashes, in which the Red Cross has indicated that 394 people were killed in three days of fighting, tensions throughout the country remain high, with fear of continued violence. While the French army has indicated that it had restored some stability in the capital by Monday night, low-level violence continued on Tuesday.
Following a request from France, the United States announced on Monday that it would help fly African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops into the CAR. According to a spokesman for US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, US forces have been ordered “to begin transporting forces from Burundi to the Central African Republic.” US President Barack Obama has also called for calm and has asked the CAR’s transitional government to arrest those who are committing crimes.
Meanwhile President Francois Hollande arrived in Bangui on Tuesday after attending a memorial service for South African former president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Upon his arrival, the French leader paid tribute to his country’s two fallen soldiers. During the short visit, the French President is expected to meet with Michel Djotodia, the country’s interim president.
Francois Hollande has defended France’s military intervention in the CAR, stating that it was necessary to avoid a bloodbath. Speaking in Bangui, the French leader stated, “it was time to act. In Bangui itself, nearly 400 people were killed. There was no time to procrastinate.”
France’s envoy to the United Nations announced on Tuesday that his country wants elections in the CAR to be held “as quickly as possible,” preferably by late 2014. Speaking at UN headquarters in New York, Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters that “in light of political tensions on the ground, it would be preferable to have elections as quickly as possible, that is to say in the second half of 2014,” adding that “if the elections could take place in the second half of 2014, in the fall of 2014, that could be positive.” Currently, the CAR has a deadline to hold legislative and president
On Thursday, the French Foreign Ministry confirmed that a French priest had been kidnapped in northern Cameroon, close to the border with Nigeria, nine months after Nigerian Islamists kidnapped a family in the same border region. Reports now indicate that Father Georges Vandenbeusch had time to alert the French embassy prior to being kidnapped by militants overnight on Thursday.
Father Georges Vandenbeusch, 42, was seized near Koza, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the border with Nigeria, during the early morning hours on Thursday. According to Paris-based bishop Monseigneur Gerard Daucourt, who is in charge of the priest, fifteen gunmen burst into the compound in Nguetchewe, where the priest had been working, demanding money. According to the bishop, Mr. Vandenbeusch had time to alert the French embassy by phone before the gunmen stormed his private room. His abductors then marched him barefoot across the village before felling on their motorcycles. Monseigneur Daucourt has also indicated that the priest’s suitcase was found a road that leads into Nigeria with only a checkbook in it. According to a nun who worked with Mr. Vandenbeusch at the compound, the gunmen were speaking in English and had arrived on foot.
Agustine Fonka Awa, governor of the Far North region, has since travelled to Nguetchewe along with security forces in order to investigate the kidnapping however he has stated that the priest has likely already been taken across the border into Nigeria. According to officials in Nigeria, the Far North region of Cameroon has been used by Boko Haram militants in order to transport weapons and to hide from the six-month ongoing military offensive against them. Officials in Aubja last week appealed to Cameroon to tighten security along the border as the porous region has enabled Boko Haram militants to easily launch attacks and to go into hiding.
Mr. Vandenbeusch is likely to have been targeted by militants as he was known to help Nigerians flee attacks carried out by Boko Haram. An official at the Paris prosecutor’s office has confirmed that an investigation has been opened into the “kidnapping and illegal confinement by a group linked to a terrorist organization.” France’s Foreign Ministry has also indicated that so far no group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping however it is believed that members of either Boko Haram or Ansaru, militant groups known to operate in the region, are likely behind the abduction. France’s Foreign Ministry are currently in the process of establishing the identity of the kidnappers.
The kidnapping of the Roman Catholic priest occurred near the area where another French family had been abducted earlier this year. Seven members, four of them children under the age of twelve, of the Moulin-Fournier family were kidnapped by Islamist militants near Cameroon’s northern Waza National Park, which likes just a few kilometers from the Nigerian border, in February of this year. They were taken over the border into neighboring Nigeria and held hostage for two months. Despite officials from France and Cameroon denying that a ransom payment was made, a confidential report from the Nigerian government indicated that Boko Haram, who was responsible for the kidnapping, had received a ransom payment of US $3.15 million (£2 million) before releasing the family. Similarly last month, the French media reported that a €20 million ransom payment had been paid in order to secure the release of four French hostages who were abducted in Niger in 2010. This allegation has strongly been denied by the French government.
Mr. Vandenbeusch’s abduction is the latest in a series of attacks on French targets in West Africa ever since the country launched a military intervention in January to remove al-Qaeda-linked militants from the northern region of Mali. The latest kidnapping of a French national also comes at a time when France has over the pat month both celebrated the release of four hostages and mourned the killing of two journalists. On 29 October, President Francois Hollande confirmed the release of four French hostages who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010. The hostages had been held in northern Mali by Islamist militants. While their return to France was seen as a victory, their release was marred when just days later on 2 November two French journalists working for Radio France Internationale (RFI) were killed in Mali by militants claiming to represent al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). According to the militants, the killings were in retaliation for France’s ongoing operation in Mali however security experts have since stated that the killings were the result of a failed kidnapping attempt when the militants‘ vehicle broke down, forcing them to kill the hostages amidst fears that they would be tracked down by French forces. The recent incidents have also sparked an urgent call French President Francois Hollande, asking all French citizens not to put themselves in harm’s way. While France’s Foreign Ministry had previously categorized the northern region of Cameroon as a high risk for kidnapping, warning any citizens in the area to leave immediately, reports have now indicated that Mr. Vandenbeusch had repeatedly ignored those warnings. According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, “he had been told several times that the area is dangerous….We had expressly advised him not to stay on but he though he should remain there.” Mr. Vandenbeusch arrived in Cameroon in 2011, having previously been a priest in the Paris suburb of Sceaux.
French Hostage Escapes After Nearly One Year in Captivity
Meanwhile another French hostage, Francis Collomp, who was held by Islamist militants in northern Nigeria for nearly a year, is free after reportedly escaping during a shoot-out.
Reports have indicated that Mr. Collomp had managed to escape from his cell during an army operation that was carried out against the militants. A source close to the case has indicated that Mr. Collomp fled after his cell door was left open. He then hailed a taxi which took him to the police, from where he was brought to Kaduna. According to Femi Adenaike Adeleye, the police commissioner in the regional capital of Kaduna, Mr. Collomp escaped in the northern city of Zaria on Saturday while his captors were praying,” adding that “he watched his captors’ prayer time. They always prayed for 15 minutes. And yesterday they did not lock the door to his cell.” The commissioner further added that Mr. Collomp had been held in the city of Kano after his abduction and that he had been brought to Zaria about two months ago.
On Sunday, French President Francois Hollande has thanked Nigeria’s authorities for helping secure the release of Francis Collomp, 63, in the northern city of Zaria. Mr. Collomp left Abuja on a flight to Paris late on Sunday. He was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Didier Le Bret, the head of the French foreign ministry’s crisis centre, indicated that Mr. Collomp was “weakened” but in good enough health to travel.” He is expected to arrive in Paris around 6:00AM (0500 GMT) on Monday, where he will be met by French Prime Minsiter Jean-Marc Ayrault.
Mr. Collomp was kidnapped on 19 December 2012 by about thirty armed men who attacked the residence of his employer, French wind turbine manufacturer Vergnet, in the northern Nigerian state of Katsina. The kidnapping, which left two bodyguards and a bystander dead, was claimed by Ansaru, a militant group linked to Boko Haram.
At Least Seven Remain
With the release of Mr. Collomp, and four other French hostages earlier this month, at least seven French hostages are still being held captive abroad.
- On 24 November 2011, Frenchmen Serge Lazarevic and Philippe Verdon are kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, northeastern Mali, while on a business trip. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility on December 9. Mr. Verdon was killed earlier this year. His death was confirmed by French officials.
- On 20 November 2012 – Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, a Portuguese-born French citizen, is abducted by at least six armed men in Diema, western Mali, while travelling by car from Mauritania. On 22 November, al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
- 14 November 2013 Roman Catholic priest Georges Vandenbeusch abducted from his home near the town of Koza in northern Cameroon, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the border with Nigeria.
- 6 June 2013 two French journalists, Didier Francois from Europe 1 Radio and Edouard Elias, an independent photographer working for the same station, are reported missing in Syria. The office of French President Francois Hollande indicated that the pair were intercepted by unknown kidnappers at a checkpoint while travelling towards Aleppo.
- 9 October 2013 – The capture of reporter Nicolas Henin and Photographer Pierre Torres is announced by their families and the French Foreign Ministry. The two men were kidnapped on June 22 while working in the northern city of Raqqa. None of the armed groups fighting for control of the town have claimed responsibility, nor have any demands been made.