Mali rebels in threat of long war
Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels launched a counteroffensive in Mali today after four days of French air strikes on their northern strongholds, seizing the central town of Diabaly and promising to drag France into a brutal Afghanistan-style war.
France, which has poured hundreds of troops into the capital Bamako in recent days, carried out more air raids today in the vast desert area seized last year by an Islamist alliance grouping al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM alongside Mali's home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine militant groups.
"France has opened the gates of hell for all the French," a spokesman for MUJWA, Oumar Ould Hamaha, told Europe 1 radio. "She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."
Meanwhile, Britain has made available two C-17 transport planes which will ferry French medical gear, tanks and other equipment to Mali this week.
Asked whether the UK will play any further part in the Mali operation, British prime minister David Cameron’s official spokesman told reporters at a regular Westminster briefing: “We are providing logistical assistance to the French government. It is purely a logistical role.
“We have been very clear that this is a logistical role only. It will not be a combat role. If there are other logistical and support roles that are proposed, I am sure they will be considered.”
Canada has also said it will send a military transport plane to provide temporary heavy-lift support for the French campaign, the government said.
"While the government of Canada is not, and will not be, considering a direct Canadian military mission in Mali, Canada is prepared ... to provide limited and clearly defined logistical
support to assist the forces that are intervening in Mali," prime minister Stephen Harper said in a statement.
Acting on a French request, a giant C-17 cargo aircraft will fly from Canada to France and then on to the Malian capital Bamako, where it will unload, Mr Harper said. The plane will be made available for a week.
Canada's appetite for military intervention is low following a five-year mission to Afghanistan, which ended in 2011 after 158 soldiers were killed.
Paris is determined to shatter Islamist domination of northern Mali, which many fear could become a launchpad for terrorism attacks on the West and a base for co-ordination with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
MUJWA, which has imposed strict sharia law in its northern fiefdom of Gao, promised France would pay for air strikes on the city. Dozens of its fighters died on Sunday when rockets hit a fuel depot and a customs house being used as a headquarters.
Launching a counter-attack far to the southwest of recent fighting, Islamists dislodged government forces from the town of Diabaly, just 350 km (220 miles) northeast of Bamako. French and Malian troops attempting to retake the town were battling Islamists shouting 'Allahu akbar', residents said.
The rebels infiltrated the town overnight from the porous border region with Mauritania, home to AQIM camps housing well-equipped and trained foreign fighters.
France, which has repeatedly said it has abandoned its role as the policeman of its former African colonies, convened a U.N. Security Council meeting for Monday to discuss the Mali crisis.