THE PROSPECT of an Africa-led international military intervention to assist Mali has significantly advanced in recent days with word that strategically important Algeria will now not oppose such a mission. In response to a request from the Mali government the UN earlier this month expressed its “readiness” to send an international force to drive Islamists out of the north of the country and sought within weeks the formulation of a clear military strategy.
Mali’s plans involve troops from its army and west Africa regional bloc ECOWAS, with training, logistics and intelligence support from France, the EU, US and other countries.
Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters linked to al Qaeda seized control of two-thirds of northern Mali following a failed army coup in the capital Bamako in March. Since then there have been repeated reports of human rights violations, including public whippings, beatings, amputations and stonings, threats to musicians, and the desecration of ancient religious sites. The rebels are reported to have drawn up lists of unmarried pregnant women to be punished, the United Nations says, and enforced marriages are being carried out. More than 300,000 refugees have fled the region.
The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), together with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Tuareg-based more moderate Ansar Dine control military bases, airports and the north’s principal towns, Gao and Timbuktu. Mujao has threatened to attack Bamako if the dispute is internationalised. “The minister of defence called me to talk about negotiating towards a secular state. I told him it’s sharia or the sword,” Oumar Ould Hamaha, the group’s head of security also warned the Guardian.
As many as 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers may be needed to take back and hold the north, UN officials say. The challenge will be to put together a regional force – Nigeria, with the largest army in west Africa, is embattled with its own Islamists. And Algeria which shares a 2,000 kilometre border with Mali has been most reluctant until recently. It is likely not to want to do more than give its consent to a mission. Mali’s own army has been severely weakened by its defeat in the north, while the government in Bamako is divided.
Planned elections in April, however, may help to provide some degree of political legitimacy and authority to a new government ahead of a military push against the rebels. Attempts at dialogue with the Tuareg may also prove important to dividing the northern forces.