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.