Mali Conflict Rages On As France Deepens Involvement

  @crvillarreal on January 12 2013 7:52 PM
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France's President Francois Hollande delivered a statement on the situation in Mali at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Friday. Reuters

French special forces in Mali have launched airstrikes and ground operations to assist West African coalition troops in driving back al Qaeda-linked rebels who have taken over much of the northern part of the country.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defense minister, spoke Saturday on the military operations, which included troops from Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal, announcing that a rebel outpost near the northern city of Konna had been destroyed and the city retaken Friday, a day after rebels launched an offensive and captured it.

A French pilot died from wounds sustained in the raid on Konna after his helicopter was downed, Le Drian said.

The French defense minister called the deteriorating situation "serious," CNN reported. "Terrorist groups want to destabilize the country. We are determined to prevent them doing so, within the strict framework of international law."

With the fighting continuing outside Konna, the Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, authorized the deployment of more troops to the region.

“The [Ecowas] Comission … in light of the urgency of the situation, has decided to authorize the immediate deployment of Ecowas troops,” the organization said in a statement Saturday.

“Measures will be taken to implement this decision,” it added. “The Commission reiterates its support and encouragement to the Malian Defense and Security Forces and commits to take all necessary measures to repel this attack.”

Mali's northern reaches have long been an unstable region where multiple rebel groups have gained control, although it has only been within the past year that outside militant Islamist groups have infiltrated the region.

Rebel groups were able to expand their territory during the political instability following the March 2011 coup in the Malian capital Bamako.

Fighters affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, or AQIM, also expanded across the region following the fall of Libyan autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

France has chosen to enter the conflict out of concern that the region has become a haven for militant groups planning to launch terrorist attacks.

"The threat is a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe," Al Jazeera quoted Le Drian as saying Saturday. It noted the French military operations were also designed to protect some 6,000 French citizens living in Mali.

French President Francois Hollande said Friday that military operations would "last as long as necessary."

The intervention of France into the Malian conflict has the potential to further radicalize militants and could be used as a recruiting tool, some analysts said.

“Once people start seeing these Islamists fighting with Western forces, it could easily turn into a struggle that a whole lot of militants will want to join,” said Jacob Zenn, an Africa analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.

Sanda Abou Mohamed, a representative of the Islamist group Ansar Dine, told Al Jazeera that the French military operations mostly killed and injured innocent civilians.

"The terrorist French military bombed Konna,” he said. “The hospitals are now filled with the injured -- women, children, and the elderly are the main victims. ... It's impossible to know how many have been killed, but the number is huge. Only five of those killed were our fighters. The rest are all innocent civilians."

With hostilities still flaring around Konna, the number of casualties has yet to be confirmed.

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