Jan 17, 2013
Following almost a week of intense airstrikes, French troops have engaged in directs combat with Islamist rebels in central Mali only 400 kilometers from the capital Bamako.
The first clashes erupted between Islamist rebels and Malian and French ground troops after they surrounded the rebel-controlled city of Diabaly north of the capital, Xinhua reported.
About 200 French soldiers took part in the operation, a Malian security source told Xinhua. According to witnesses, women and children had fled the town before the operation started.
Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera reported that the fighting was happening about two kilometers away from the center of the city,“away from the civilians.”
Rebels also clashed with Malian troops near the central town of Konna “with support from the French army,” the source told Al-Jazeera giving no details on the kind of support.
French military meanwhile continues massive preparations for a full-scale ground offensive after six days of airstrikes failed to prevent the militants, who have seized vast areas in the north of the former French colony, from moving towards Bamako.
On Tuesday, France announced it would deploy as many as 2,500 soldiers, tripling its contingent on the ground. In response to France’s engagement in the conflict, the leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa announced that the rebels would strike the “heart of France” for their “attack on Islam.”
On Wednesday, reportedly in retaliation to the ongoing French military campaign, a group of heavily armed militants raided a BP oil plant in Algeria, killing three foreigners and taking 41 hostage.
Michael Maloof, a former Pentagon official, told RT that al-Qaeda plans to use Northern Africa as a launch pad to gain access to Europe.
“This demonstrates how the al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, in the Islamic Maghreb, basically are coordinating their activities,” Maloof said. “And this is part of the overall al-Qaeda plan to basically take that northern part of Africa as a stepping stone into Europe itself – and there have been threats in Paris already by Malians.”
These “Malian rebels” are very well trained, Maloof explained, as they’ve been prepared for and involved in operations not only in Mali but in Libya as well.
“And what is really tragic is the fact the US trained the now-terrorists who basically defected from the government and know many of our activities, and know how we operate from a special forces standpoint and can use them against us,”he said. “Now they’ve joined forces with AQIM, which is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
“So this is a very dicey situation,” Maloof added. “It also represents a potential long-term Afghanistan-like effect for France itself, and inadvertently it could suck the United States back yet into another war.”