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France faces tough, long fight in Mali

15 January 2013, 16:08

Paris - French forces intervening in Mali are facing a determined, experienced and well-armed foe and will not be able to quickly count on the backing of an organised African ground force, analysts said.

France launched airstrikes on Friday to back the Malian army in an operation against Islamist rebels who had seized the north of the country and were threatening to advance on the capital Bamako.

President Francois Hollande said the move was necessary to protect France's 6 000 citizens in the former colony and prevent Mali's vast desert north from becoming a haven from which extremists could strike at Europe.

French troops were arriving in Mali, with newspaper Le Monde reporting that the initial deployment of 550 soldiers would be boosted to 2 500.

France announced quick gains in eastern Mali in the offensive, driving the Islamists from key positions, but the rebels launched a counter-offensive and seized control of a town in the government-held south.

Sources in the French presidency admitted to being surprised at how well-equipped, armed and co-ordinated the rebels proved.

"These are not novices, they have a good tactical sense, enjoy very strong mobility with 4x4s and have surface-to-air weapons systems," French defence expert Pascal Le Pautremat said.

French Rafale fighter jets struck bases used by al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Gao and Kidal, two of the main towns in northern Mali, and rebel stockpiles of munitions and fuel near Kidal, a stronghold of rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).

Long term operation

"Rear bases and logistical points must be hit," Le Pautremat said. "But we can't believe that victory is a given by sticking to the destruction of military targets. It will be necessary to occupy the ground in the long run, so to deploy men and resources."

Analysts said France's involvement could be over fairly quickly if the only objective is to stop the Islamists' advance into the south.

But if the goal is to completely retake control of the north, France could be looking at a "long-term operation" in Mali, said Bruno Tertrais of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.

Tertrais said officials had already indicated that French forces could be in for the long haul.

"When you say from the outset that it will last 'as long as it takes', that means you are ready for a long-term commitment if necessary," he said.

France will be hoping to limit the involvement of its troops by putting the bulk of the on-the-ground burden on a planned west African intervention force.

The force, authorised by the UN Security Council, has started to take shape, with Nigeria leading the intervention and providing around 600 soldiers. Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal and Togo have all pledged about 500 troops. Benin and Ghana have also promised to contribute soldiers.

Still, experts said that if the situation on the ground progresses rapidly, it may already be too late for an African force to play an effective role.

"It will be difficult for these battalions to be operational before at least three months," said General Jean-Paul Thonier, who commanded the European Union's Artemis mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003.



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