France steps up security over Mali


France will pursue operations in Mali to prepare a subsequent African-led intervention to oust Islamist rebels and will step up anti-terrorist security measures on its own territory, French president Francois Hollande said today. 

Mr Hollande promised to increase protection at public buildings and transport networks.

He was speaking after French forces carried out a second day of air strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali on today and sent troops to protect the capital Bamako in an operation involving several hundred soldiers. In Somalia French commandos launched a failed raid to rescue an intelligence agent held hostage there for three years.

"We have already held back the progress of our adversaries and inflicted heavy losses on them. But our mission is not over yet," Mr Hollande told a news conference today.

France has some of the world’s most recognisable monuments and a wide-ranging national transport network; it also has an organised government response if there are specific fears of a terrorist attack.

A French pilot was killed yesterday when his helicopter was shot down during an air strike near the central town of Mopti as France began the operation to help the Malian government stem a push south by rebels who control much of the north, said French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

The operation targeted a column of rebels headed for Mopti, he said. "In this intense fighting, sadly, one of our pilots ... was fatally injured. He was evacuated to the nearest medical centre before dying of his wounds," Mr Le Drian told a news conference.

He said France had sent special forces into Mopti to prepare the ground and later sent "several hundred" troops into Bamako on Friday to safeguard the capital..

Western governments, particularly former colonial power France, had voiced alarm after the al-Qaeda-linked rebel alliance captured the town of Konna on Thursday, a gateway towards the capital, Bamako, 600km south.

The West African regional bloc ECOWAS today authorised the immediate deployment of troops to Mali a day after French forces began their military operation. In a statement, ECOWAS commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said it made the decision “in light of the urgency of the situation”.

The union did not say how many troops would be sent to Mali or when they would arrive. It also did not specify which countries from the 15-nation bloc would be providing the forces. ECOWAS has been talking for months about a military operation to oust the Islamists from northern Mali. While the UN approved a plan it had not been expected until September.

Yesterday, Mr Hollande said France would not stand by to watch the rebels push southward. Paris has repeatedly warned that the Islamists' seizure of the country's north in April gave them a base to attack neighbouring African countries and Europe. "We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this," Mr Hollande, who recently pledged Paris would not meddle in African affairs, said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists.

The president said resolutions by the UN security council, which in December sanctioned an African-led military intervention in Mali, meant France was acting in accordance with international law.

French military operations in support of the Malian army against Islamist rebels "will last as long as necessary," France's UN ambassador, Gerard Araud, wrote in a letter to the Security Council.

In Washington, a US official said the Pentagon was weighing options in Mali, including intelligence-sharing with France and logistics support.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius confirmed France had carried out air strikes against the rebels to prevent them conquering the whole of Mali. He refused to reveal further details, such as whether French troops were on the ground.

France's intervention immediately tipped the military balance of power, with Malian government forces quickly sweeping back into Konna, according to local residents.

"The Malian army has retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now," Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone said, adding that the army was mopping up Islamist fighters in the surrounding area.

A military operation had not been expected until September due to the difficulties of training Malian troops, funding the African force and deploying during the midyear rainy season. But Mali's government appealed for urgent military aid from France on Thursday after Islamist fighters took Konna.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called yesterday for "accelerated international engagement" and said the bloc would speed up plans to deploy 200 troops to train Malian forces, initially expected in late February.

The capture of Konna by the rebels - who have imposed strict Sharia Islamic law in northern Mali - had caused panic among residents in the towns of Mopti and Sevare, 60km to the south. Calm returned, however, after residents reported Western soldiers and foreign military aircraft arriving late on Thursday at Sevare's airport - the main one in the region.

Military analysts said the Western soldiers may have been the first deployment of French special forces. They voiced doubt, however, whether yesterday's action heralded the start of the final operation to retake northern Mali - a harsh, sparsely populated terrain the size of France - as neither the equipment nor ground troops were ready.

"We're not yet at the big intervention," said Mark Schroeder, director for Sub-Saharan Africa analysis for the global risk and security consultancy Stratfor. He said France had been forced to act when the Islamists bore down on Sevare, a vital launching point for future military operations. "The French realised this was a red line that they could not permit to be crossed," he said.


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