Mali: French troops head north into unknown

French soldiers on an armoured personnel carrier head north from the Malian capital, Bamako (15 Jan 2013)

A large armoured convoy of French troops left the Malian capital, Bamako, overnight heading for the north in what may signal an intensification of a ground war against Islamist rebels.

Their big guns were ready and their headlights blazing.

At some points along the road people gathered to wave at the French soldiers.

In another development, an official of the ethnic National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has told the BBC they will fight the Islamist groups.

The MNLA are not Islamists. They were in a loose alliance with the Islamist Ansar Dine and other groups last year when they defeated the Malian army in the north.

But the Tuareg agenda is essentially for self-determination - rather than the strict application of Sharia, which is the aim of Ansar Dine.

French officials have conceded that at least two concentrations of armed Islamist rebels are still a concern for them.

Military secret

One is in the town of Diabaly, about 400km (250 miles) north-east of the capital.

Islamists moved into Diabaly after the French air campaign against them began in other locations, forcing a demoralised Malian government army unit to withdraw.

Another area of concern for the French is the village of Konna, some 550km from Bamako.

Konna is symbolically important because it was the first place to fall to the Islamists in the middle of last week, shortly before the first French air attacks began.

A fascinating account of how Konna was taken has emerged in The Hindu newspaper of India.

The detailed account explained how the Islamists hijacked a public bus which was waved through a security checkpoint.

At the next checkpoint, inside the town, Islamists burst out of the doors of the bus and attacked.

The French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday that Konna was not currently controlled by the Malian army.

The final destination of the armoured convoy which left on Tuesday evening is, of course, a military secret.

Finishing power

Large areas of northern Mali are effectively closed off to journalists.

It seems likely that the French are worried about having reporters in the area in case they either find out something potentially embarrassing - or get caught accidentally in an air raid.

"The situation is too dynamic for the French to allow reporters up there," said a security source familiar with similar campaigns.

Until now, the main French effort against the rebels has been aerial bombardment of their positions using jet fighter planes and helicopters.

But this tactic lacks finishing power.

Unless the areas bombed are subsequently occupied on the ground, the opponents of the French and the Malian government who are not killed could regroup.

When France started its attacks against the Islamists in northern Mali the talk was of several hundred French soldiers taking part.

The total due here has now risen to 2,500.

And the French are gathering international military assistance from wherever they can.

Nigeria is due to send some troops soon. Britain has helped with airlift. Belgium has lent helicopters.

Northern Mali is a very big place.

France needs all the help it can get.

The battle for Mali

Image caption 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".
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.

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