The French military, which has been bombarding Islamist rebels in Mali from the skies since last Friday, launched their first ground assault on rebel positions on Wednesday. Today, Nigerian troops are expected to join the French ground force, and other West African soldiers are expected to join them by this weekend.
The French army chief Edouard Guillaud has said this morning that his soldiers wee stepping up their operations and would engage the Islamists directly “within hours”. Witness reports suggest that a column of around 30 armoured vehicles had advanced towards rebel positions from the town of Niono, which is located some 190 miles (300km) from the capital Bamako.
A group of Islamist rebels are pinned down in the town of Diabaly, with French troops on one side and the Malian army on the other. Militants initially fled Diabaly when the French air strikes began, but soon retook the town. A spokesman for MUJWA, one of the militant groups which controls northern Mali, has said that “Fighting is taking place. So far it is just shooting from distance, They [French troops] have not been able to enter Diabaly.”
Mali’s Islamists, many of whom belong to regional division of the global terrorist organisation al Qaeda, have promised to “open the gates of hell” in response to the French intervention. It appears as if this threatened response has already begun, as 41 international hostages have been taken at a gas facility in neighbouring Algeria.
France has warned of the dangers which Mali’s Islamists pose to both West Africa, and to Europe and the rest of the world. Even before the French intervention the UN had planned to send a force of 2,000, made up mainly of West African troops. So far, however, major world powers such as the United States and Britain have seemed wary of making any significant commitment to send their own soldiers into the country.
West African Forces Prepare to Enter the Battle
Although the United States and Britain are holding back on making any troop commitments to Mali, it seems that West Africa nations – many of whom face a significant Islamist threat within their own countries too – are stepping up to the mark. The original plans for 2,000 West African troops look set to be greatly expanded, as Chad alone has now pledged to send 2,000 soldiers into the conflict.
The first contingent of African soldiers, some 900 troops from Nigeria, are set to arrive in Mali today (Thursday). Reuters has reported that local witnesses have also seen another 200 troops from Niger waiting to cross the border into eastern Mali in a convoy which includes armoured vehicles and artillery.
Meanwhile Guillard has said that the effectiveness of French air strikes s being hampered by militants, who are now using the civilian population as human shields.