Malian, French troops push north against Islamist militants

Other News Materials 23 January 2013 05:05 (UTC +04:00)
French and Malian troops on Tuesday advanced north-east after seizing three central towns from Islamist rebels, while the government extended a state of emergency by three months, dpa reported.
Malian, French troops push north against Islamist militants

French and Malian troops on Tuesday advanced north-east after seizing three central towns from Islamist rebels, while the government extended a state of emergency by three months, dpa reported.

A Malian military official said the allied forces intended to push about 100 kilometres a week northwards as they retake towns from militants. The next target would be Hombori city, in the Mopti region.

The French-Malian mission aims to wrest back the country's desert north from al-Qaeda-linked forces who seized it early last year, sparking fears of a new terrorist haven in Africa's Sahel region.

The rebels have enforced strict sharia, or Islamic law, in the region, and militants last week cited the Mali conflict when they attacked a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria in a bloody hostage drama.

The United Nations pointed to a growing refugee crisis, saying 7,000 people had fled to neighbouring countries since French airstrikes began in the West African country on January 11.

"Many newly arrived refugees are expecting additional members of their families to join them in the next days from Mali," UNHCR, the UN refugee agency said, pointing to shortages of food and fuel, but also fears over the application of sharia.

Some 147,000 Malians have found refuge abroad, while inside Mali 229,000 people are displaced, according to the latest UN data.

The European Union has pledged a further 20 million euros (27 million dollars) in humanitarian aid, pointing to the plight of the refugees and "severely malnourished" children.

EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who arrived in Bamako on Tuesday to assess the country's needs, urged other donors to step up their support too.

The international community will also be asked to open its wallets at a donors' conference in Addis Ababa on January 29 to help support African military operations in Mali.

A leading EU official said very early estimates point to a need of about 400 million dollars, with the money to be split between Malian forces and troops organized by the Economic Community of West African States.

"There is now an awareness in the region and beyond that should allow the mobilization of the entire international community," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy said EU leaders would discuss the situation in Mali during their next summit on February 7-8.

"The war in Mali and the hostage crisis in Algeria should make all Europeans think how important it is to treat northern Africa as a top priority," Bernardino Leon, the EU's special representative for the Southern Mediterranean region, told dpa Insight EU.

In Mali, meanwhile, residents in Diabaly, Konna and Douentza said rebels had fled those towns, which had fallen under Islamist control shortly after France began its intervention to stop a rebel advance on the capital.

"Regular life has resumed in Konna," resident Aguibou Toure told dpa by telephone. "French and Malian troops secured the city. Some people who previously fled have started to come back to the city."

A state of emergency, in effect since January 12, bans any large public gatherings or other acts that could affect public order, and the government in Bamako has now extended it by three months.

Officials said no French airstrikes were reported early Tuesday.

Other European powers have voiced support for France, with several countries offering logistical support, but no combat troops.

The EU official rejected criticism about the EU not sending in combat troops to help the French soldiers, arguing that there has been no such request and stressing the importance of "African ownership" of the military operations.

"Because if you leave it to the French, to the EU, you get the criticism ... that this is Iraq or Afghanistan all over again. That is certainly not what we want to do," he said.

Some Islamic leaders have already criticized the French mission in its former colony.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said it "could aggravate the conflict in the region" and stressed that "any intervention should be peaceful and aimed at development."

"We will never accept any extremism, violence or attacks on civilians, but neither do we wish to create a new centre for bloody conflict in central Africa, which could divide North Africa from its African neighbourhood," Al-Shorouk newspaper quoted Morsi as saying.

The High Islamic Council of Mali, meanwhile, said the French intervention should not be seen as a religious war.

"This is not an issue of Islam," Mohamoud Dicko, head of the council, said. "But it is the fight against terrorism and crime in northern Mali. Muslims around the world must understand what is happening in Mali."