Mali crisis: French confident against well-armed Islamists

Troops from the French Navy Infantry Regiment arrive near the town of Markala to secure a strategic bridge on the Niger River on 16 January 2013

We found the French army in a dusty military compound on the banks of the slow, broad Niger River, here in Markala.

There were perhaps a dozen armoured vehicles parked in the courtyard, with more grinding their way in and out every few minutes.

"The French forces are here to block and to stop the advance of the Islamist rebels," said the local French commander, who explained that for security reasons, he would only give us his first name, Frederick, and the name of his task force "Ciwara" - which is apparently a small antelope.

Lt Col Frederick explained that his immediate priority was to secure the nearby bridge - a long, narrow steel contraption - and the only crossing point over the Niger River for hundreds of kilometres.

"This is only the first part of the mission; we are waiting orders for the next part," he said, acknowledging that events on the ground were moving fast and unpredictably.

Soldiers man a checkpoint at a bridge in Markala, approximately 40km outside Segou on the road to Diabaly, in central Mali, 14 January 2013 Security is tight around the bridge in Markala

On the bridge itself, a handful of Malian soldiers sat in the shade, telling journalists that nobody - "not even tourists in peace time" - was allowed to take pictures of it.

French flags for sale

These were among the very first Malian soldiers we had seen since leaving the capital, Bamako, and driving for about five hours to the north-east.

Start Quote

Lt Col Frederick

We know the ground. We know them. We know how they fight”

End Quote Lt Col Frederick

The city itself seemed to be without any organised defence - a surprise given that it appeared to be on the brink of falling to a surprise offensive by Islamist rebels just days ago.

The first checkpoint we encountered was a few minutes outside Markala.

The countryside around here forms some of Mali's richest farmland - flat fields of corn and rice interspersed with big fruit trees.

A couple of French armoured cars drove through Markala, past a selection of French flags being sold on the roadside, and up onto the bridge, heading north.

For several days now, French airstrikes have been targeting a town called Diabaly, about 140km (87 miles) north towards the border with Mauritania.

There have also been reports of clashes in a town called Niono, about half-way between the two.

Lt Col Frederick, who is based in Chad and acknowledged having taken part in several wars in Africa, admitted that the Islamist fighters who have seized Diabaly were "a lot tougher" than any other rebel armies he had encountered on the continent.


"But it's not really a huge problem for us," he continued.

"We know the ground. We know them. We know how they fight.

"And we have a lot of heavy arms and air strikes so for us it's no problem."

Passengers board a commuter boat, on the Niger River, in Segou, central Mali, on Tuesday 15 January 2013 The River Niger is an important transport route in central Mali

Although journalists are currently being kept back from the frontlines, it seems clear that Mali's army, having been forced into a series of humiliating retreats, is in a state of some disarray - to put it politely; and that Lt Col Frederick and his men are taking on a far more prominent frontline role than initially envisioned.

Start Quote

We have faith… and we have the French with us”

End Quote Col Cheick Amala Sidibe

When I asked him how long he expected to remain in Mali, he smiled and replied: "I don't know.

"And if you have the answer, I'm very interested to know that."

In the same compound being used by the French, we found a handful of Malian soldiers, and in an upstairs office, was Col Cheick Amala Sidibe, commander of the Seventh Region.

"We know they are strong. They don't respect the human rights. It's a problem," he conceded, when I asked him why the Islamists had captured the garrison town of Diabaly with such apparent ease.

But like his French counterpart, Col Sidibe was adamant that the lightly-armed Islamists would soon be defeated.

"We have faith… and we have the French with us.

"They are doing a good job. Together we can do it quickly… It is not a problem for us to win."

The battle for Mali
Map French forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist rebels have threatened to advance on the capital Bamako from their strongholds in the north. France said it had decided to act to stop the offensive, which could create "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe".
Mali in the 1930s The landlocked area of West Africa was the core of ancient empires going back to the 4th Century. The French colonised Mali, then known as French Sudan, at the end of the 19th Century, while Islamic religious wars created theocratic states in the region.
Malian soldiers Mali gained independence in 1960 but endured droughts, rebellions and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. In the early 1990s, the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights.
Rebels The insurgency gathered momentum in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. Tuareg nationalists, alongside Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, seized control of the north in 2012 after a military coup by soldiers frustrated by government efforts against the rebels.
Refugee at UNHCR Mangaize refugee camp in Niger The fighting in the north and the establishment of a harsh form of Islamic law has forced thousands to flee their homes - some estimates say more than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries.
French fighter jet In January 2013, the Islamists captured the central city of Konna. France, responding to appeals for help from the Mali president, has sent about 550 troops to the Mopti and to Bamako, which is home to about 6,000 French nationals. French jets have also launched air strikes.
Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    UN and the current Mali government be damned!

    Get a Declaration of War from your parliament or don't do anything at all.

    Putting French men & women in a war zone is the most serious thing a French President can do.

    Hollande is increasingly showing the kind of mad man is he is. I fear for the future of the French people under his stewardship.

  • Comment number 152.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    my only disappointment is that west africans who stood the greatest risk from the terrorists advance were non-chalant until a foreign power arrived. whatever the intentions of the french are i think they have got this spot on and nigeria must emulate in order to halt terrorism within her borders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Too little, too late. This should've been done 20 years ago. Now there is also the fight internally against immigrants/terrorists throughout Europe who someow have a vote. It's been building up for a long time. I hope this is the start of the end for all this Islamic terror, internally and externally throughout Europe ridding us of a disease. Another one severed of the multi-headed Allah beast.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.


    Ignorance is ubiquitous.

    A UN mandate cannot usurp a nation's parliament's soul moral authority to Declare War. Thanks to a UN resolution we're still in Korea.

    If u love the UN, Iran has never been voted in violation of the NPT, but plenty here want to go to war. Israel refuses to sign it.

    Let the UN go it alone. Let the French stay at home, and live.

  • Comment number 148.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Ignorance is Bliss, French Invasion? No acting under UN Mandate 2071 (2012) in concert with Nigerian and Tongolese troops to and I quote the UN "demanding that all armed groups cease human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian law, including targeted attacks against civilians, sexual violence, the recruitment of child soldiers and forced displacements"

    research before you comment....

  • Comment number 146.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.


    Why should French men and women fight, kill and die in a foreign country that doesn't threaten them?

    Why shouldn't Hollande seek a declaration of war and let the people's assembly speak?

    If interventionism works, why are there more terrorists spread around a wider area now than before the West started it all with the CIA & Mi5 instigated coup in Iran in 1953?

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    It seems to come down to one philosophical argument.

    When people in a foreign land are being brutalized and killed. Saddam H. In Iraq gassing Kurds and boiling people in oil. The Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan enforcing a brutal Islamic law and training terrorists, North Korea with it's many brutalities etc etc.

    Do we in the west have the right and/or obligation to interfere?

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    140.Keith Hudson IMBIDIMTS

    "137 Andrew MacGregor
    Can you explain how wars stop terrorism"
    AM never states that it would.

    "UK Drones are not good guys they are evil"
    Evidence for this statement please.

    "Mali has no oil only gold"
    Wrong, Mali has oil.

    "there's a fine line between heroes / hypocrites / failures"
    I'd be surprise if you knew where that line was.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Hollande, you are a disgrace!

    Whers's your declaration of war from the people's parliament, before sending French men and women to fight, kill and die in a distant land?

    You are simply trying to distract attention from your disastrous economic reforms and complete lack of monetary competence. Did you learn governance from George Bush?

    Bad economy + undertaking war = ruin of a nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    The Malian government should experience appropriate economic consequences from the west for administering their country
    so loosely, allowing domestic Islamists to gouge the international human face.
    Shockingly, Lessons won't be learned from this without them; ("Hey, it's the third world, we can't change that!") In their case, the motivation to improve should be rewarded with western hoop-jumping.

  • Comment number 140.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    I guess your sarcasm defeated me haha
    Apologies :)
    All these neo-cons are dangerous fools. I guess we should thank them for having us STILL in the Korean peninsula too...

    138Little_Old_Me (Tony Blair)
    Tell me more about how your foreign, undeclared war/interventionism works? Still enoying being in the 38'th Parallel ?
    Who's the joke?

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.


    The utter fallacy of your arguements against are witnessed by:

    A/. Never directly answering what I have said...

    B/. Making up what you think I might believe in so you think you have a point...

    C/. Making sweeping sttements that leave no room whatsoever for individual circumstances...

    And you have the nerve to say you don't run on gut instinct.....truly laughable!

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Whilst not in favour of conflict, sometimes it is inevitable.
    The jihadist elements invading Mali are far worse than the French. Not only do they kill innocents and oppress through violence (sharia interpretations) they are destroying culture and history - like Bamayan - for ever.
    Like Germany in the 1930's they start with book burning and turn to murder. They need stopping.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    I read each of your comments, and you all share the belief in sending defence forces to aggressively intervene in foreign nations. What about the rule of comity?

    If you're going to send the best of the nation to fight, kill and die in a far away land at least do it with a declaration of war and seek the parliament's, the people's assembly's, approval first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    131. Bastiat
    LOL, I'm a conservative! Wow! For Opposing War, for pointing out Hypocrisy and obvious bias? You might want to read ALL my posts before blindly insulting people.

    Or perhaps you didn't get my sarcasm?

    So you call me a Chickenhawk. Thanks for the laugh.

  • Comment number 134.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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