French warplanes flew airstrikes to halt an offensive by Islamist rebels in northern Mali while France’s army deployed hundreds of troops to protect the capital, Bamako, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
The Economic Community of West African States, a 15-nation bloc known as Ecowas, said it would immediately dispatch troops from member nations to Mali as part of a United Nations-approved force to retake the northern areas held by Islamists that wasn’t scheduled to mobilize until September.
“The situation in Mali is serious and has quickly deteriorated in the past days,” he said today at a press conference in Paris. Terrorist groups “began an offensive in the south of the country that aims to destabilize the whole of Mali,” Le Drian said.
France’s military intervention in its former colony came at the same time special forces failed to free a French intelligence officer held for more than three years in Somalia during an overnight operation, Le Drian said. “Everything makes us think” that Denis Allex died during “violent clashes” between French troops and his captors, 17 of whom were killed, Le Drian said. A French soldier died during the helicopter assault while another disappeared, he said.
The operations are the first time French President Francois Hollande ordered troops into action since he was elected in May. Islamist rebels who control the north of Mali this week began an offensive that captured the central town of Kona, 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Mopti, the last Malian military outpost before insurgent-held territory. The country vies with Tanzania to be Africa’s third-biggest gold producer.
Malian Interim President Dioncounda Traore, backed by governments in neighboring countries, asked for French intervention after the rebel attack. Other European countries support France’s military action, named Operation Serval after an African wild cat, although they aren’t participating, Le Drian said.
A French helicopter pilot, Damien Boiteux, was killed in Mali while repulsing rebels near Mopti, according to the Defense ministry. The air assaults by helicopters and Mirage fighters destroyed vehicles near Kona as well as a command post, Le Drian said. The troops in Bamako are being reinforced, he said.
“The threat is that a terrorist state will be created near Europe and France. We had to react before it was too late,” he said. “They won’t succeed. We are determined to prevent this.”
Islamist groups including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s north African unit, along with Touareg separatists, took control of an area of northern Mali the size of France after a military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo in March.
The French presence improves the viability of the civilian transitional government, Samir Gadio, a London-based emerging- markets strategist at Standard Bank Group Ltd. said.
“It effectively undermines the power base of Captain Sanogo and his associates in the Malian army now that foreign troops are on the ground,” he said in an e-mailed reply to questions today.
The UN Security Council met Jan. 10 and expressed “grave concern” about attacks by “terrorist and extremist groups” in Mali. The first contingent of Ecowas troops from Nigeria, Togo, Niger should be in Mali no later than Monday, Ivorian Integration Minister Ally Coulibaly said by telephone today from Abidjan, the capital. Ivory Coast’s president holds the rotating chairmanship of Ecowas.
Nigeria has already sent Major General U. Abdulkadri, who will lead the Ecowas force, and an air force technical team to Mali, Reuben Abati, a spokesman for President Goodluck Jonathan, said by telephone today. The country plans to deploy about 600 soldiers to Mali.
Burkina Faso plans to contribute 500 soldiers, Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole said in a statement handed to reporters today in the capital, Ouagadougou. Niger will send 500 troops in, Reuters reported today.
The French action will temporarily stop the Islamist advance although a larger ground force will have to be sent in to destroy them, Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, managing director of New York-based risk consultancy DaMina Advisors LLP, said.
“France’s unilateral military action weakens that Africa- led UN mandate for forces and introduces an anti-colonial element to the Islamist fight,” he said in an e-mailed reply to questions today. “Ecowas is totally not ready, and France is not willing to keep the commandos on the ground for too long either.”
The timing of the military actions in Mali and Somalia, which are on opposite sides of the continent, was coincidental, Le Drian said.
Al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabaab, said French troops in five helicopters attacked a house in Bulomarer based on inaccurate information that the hostage, Allex, was there, according to an e-mailed statement. Allex was safe in their custody somewhere far from the site of the airborne assault and his fate would be announced within two days, al-Shabaab said. The group also said it had captured one French soldier.
Allex was an operative with France’s intelligence agency, known by its French acronym DGSE, Le Drian said. He was on assignment with Somalia’s transitional federal government when he was kidnapped from a Mogadishu hotel on July 14, 2009, France’s national day, according to the Defense Ministry.