BAMAKO: Hundreds of jihadist fighters poured into Mali over the weekend to support the Islamists who have controlled the north for seven months, ahead of a threatened regional intervention to seize back power.
Residents of the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, Malian security officials and Islamist commanders all confirmed on Sunday that there had been a huge influx of foreign fighters over the past two days.
It comes as the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), a regional bloc of 15 countries including Mali, prepares for military action in the north.
“In the Timbuktu region and around Gao, hundreds of jihadists, mostly Sudanese and Sahrawis, have arrived as reinforcements to face an offensive by Malian forces and their allies,” a Malian security official said on condition of anonymity.
One resident of Timbuktu said “more than 150 Sudanese Islamists arrived in 48 hours”.
“They are armed and explained that they had come to help their Muslim brothers against the infidels,” he said.
A source close to a local aid group also said that many Sudanese had arrived but added there were also fighters from other countries.
Timbuktu is one of the main cities in northern Mali, which Islamist groups have controlled since overpowering a secular Tuareg rebellion that seized the area in March.
The desert city is now under the control of Ansar Dine, a group led by a former Tuareg rebel leader, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim).
‘They want war, we’ll give them war’
In Gao, further east, a similar influx of foreign fighters was reported by residents.
Since Friday, Islamists have been arriving and reporting to the Islamic police of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), the Aqim offshoot that controls the city, said one resident.
He said he had seen around 10 pick-up trucks packed with armed fighters driving up to Mujao’s main office in Gao.
The Islamist group itself confirmed it was receiving the support of foreigners as Ecowas was finalising its plans for a military intervention.
“They want war, we’ll give them war. This is why our brothers are joining us from all over,” Habib Ould Issouf, one of Mujao’s top leaders in Gao, told AFP.
“They are coming from the camps of Tindouf in Algeria, from Senegal, from Ivory Coast, from everywhere,” he said.
Led by former colonial power France, the international community has urged Mali and its regional allies to speed up preparations for a military offensive.
Ecowas has a 3,000-strong force ready to deploy but its funding and exact make-up remain unclear.
Malian troops could start training immediately for their operation, France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French television on Sunday.
France has offered logistical support but no troops on the ground.
On March 22, army officers toppled the government in protest at what they said was its failure to equip them to counter a burgeoning rebellion by Tuareg separatists and Islamists in the north.
But that only accelerated the uprising. The ensuing power vacuum in the capital Bamako allowed the rebel forces to quickly seize the north, virtually unopposed.
The Islamist forces quickly sidelined their former Tuareg allies and now control a territory in the north which is larger than France. In the south, the officers who led the coup handed over to an interim administration, but retain considerable influence.
Ansar Dine and Mujao have since implemented an extreme form of Islamic law in the north, amputating the hands and feet of thieves, stoning unwed couples and ordering women to wear full veils.
Western powers have expressed fears that al Qaeda and its affiliates could turn northern Mali into the same type of haven that Afghanistan was a decade ago.
Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore flew to Qatar on Sunday for a three-day visit. Some Malian media outlets have accused the oil-rich emirate of supporting the Islamists, but Doha has denied the allegations.
- Analysis: Towards intervention in Mali (EndtheLie.com)
October 17, 2012
By DREW HINSHAW
BAMAKO, Mali—A prospective military campaign against al Qaeda and its allies in the vast desert of this West African country has hit an obstacle: Neither Mali nor its neighbors appear ready to send soldiers into a land war, against war-hardened militants, in the world’s largest desert.
Late last week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution giving West African states 45 days to plan to retake Mali’s north, now held by Islamic fundamentalist rebels allied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The resolution has taken on urgency after AQIM, as the Saharan offshoot is known, was linked to last month’s attack on U.S. consulate sites in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador there and three other Americans.
AQIM militants roam the Sahara from Mauritania to Libya, a swath larger than India. After Mali’s democratically elected government collapsed earlier this year, they have taken over Mali’s France-sized north and begun to enforce Islamic law with public amputations and executions.
Now, foreign governments want to borrow a page from Somalia, where African Union peacekeepers recently routed al Qaeda-allied militants, a crucial step in stabilizing the strife-torn East African country. On Friday, dignitaries from the U.N., France, the U.S. and across Africa are set to assemble in Bamako, the country’s unassuming capital, for the largest meeting to date on the crisis.
But confusion in Bamako—along with the challenges such a military action could pose—have delayed the campaign, ceding Mali’s north to an al Qaeda affiliate eager to strike Western targets.
Mali’s own army lacks training, equipment and arms. In an indication of the general confusion there, officials in Guinea recently intercepted a shipment of weapons destined for Bamako because they weren’t sure who would end up with the arms. On Wednesday, Guinean officials agreed on plans to return it, the Associated Press reported.
The Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas, has proposed sending 3,300 personnel from Mali and its neighbors to battle in the north. But even some Ecowas member countries are hesitant to dispatch combat troops, and there is no indication that international forces would join in.
At the U.N., Security Council diplomats have said the Ecowas mission isn’t properly organized and that it won’t authorize any force until it is. The Pentagon is willing to send advisers to help with Ecowas force-deployment—once Ecowas has a plan for Mali—but won’t send forces, U.S. defense officials say. A U.S. appropriations act blocks Washington from providing direct military aid to a non-democratic state such as Mali. The U.S. is considering unilateral strikes in the region, officials have said, and the White House’s National Security Council has asked civilian experts to put together a list of potential air strike targets there, according to one of the analysts asked.
French President François Hollande, too, has said France would provide logistical and training assistance to an Ecowas-led military intervention but wouldn’t send soldiers. The EU was expected earlier this week to announce a training program for Malian and African troops, but instead said Monday it would propose the program by mid-November.
Mali defense officials say such shortages won’t stop their campaign.
“We’re going to start the mission without Ecowas and they can come find us along the road,” said Mali defense ministry spokesman Nouhoum Togo.
On a recent afternoon outside the capital, in Mali’s south, a group of Malian soldiers rehearsed for war by practicing driving flatbed trucks over scrubland, the closest thing at hand to a desert. For years, the U.S. held annual exercises with Malian soldiers on a nearby plot of land. But when al Qaeda rebels ambushed Mali’s military outposts in the north, many of those same soldiers fled.
“Before, we weren’t ready to die,” said Mr. Togo, the defense ministry spokesman. “Now, for our dignity and our country, we’re ready to die.”
The same month Mali’s army abandoned the north, frustrated army officers staged a coup, toppling the democratically elected government in Bamako. Heavily armed Islamic fundamentalists now rule the north.
Of the 3,300 personnel West Africa nations have tentatively offered to send, the bulk would come from Nigeria. Many of the rest include non-combat personnel: police officers, engineers, doctors. Tiny Togo is likely to send about 100 troops, its prime minister said. Guinea-Bissau is sending personnel, but its army is preoccupied governing a country. Cape Verde has committed five doctors.
Aside from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast is a big backer of military intervention in its northern neighbor. Yet both the Ivory Coast and Liberia are hosting U.N. peacekeeping missions after their own recent civil conflicts.
West Africa’s hawks are making slow progress persuading leaders from nearby North African countries. In particular, Algeria has expressed concerns that Mali’s rebels could retreat across their shared 855-mile desert border. Even 3,300 battle-equipped soldiers from West Africa would be too few, say many analysts, to secure a sweep of dune, boulders and mountains that the French themselves failed to thoroughly colonize. Nigeria is pushing Ecowas to raise its troop commitments to 5,000 troops, according to one of the country’s senior security officials. Nigeria is lobbying Senegal to provide much of that margin.
Mali’s Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, one of the top leaders of the transitional government, is a former scientist who worked at NASA during the 1990s and 2000s. Today, he has the formidable task of convincing other African countries to help clear the country’s north of militants. The prime minister has been to Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Chad and South Africa seeking support.
South Africa and Chad have voiced willingness to participate. But it isn’t yet clear what such troops would be doing in Mali. Ecowas plans to invade the cities of the north, according to its Special Representative to Mali Aboudou Touré Cheaka. These would include the historic and vulnerable trading town of Timbuktu, where 14th-century clay monuments have been smashed by Islamists who view them as sacrilegious.
Mali’s army has asked that Ecowas soldiers stay behind and guard Mali’s middle belt. Many observers expect foreign troops will end up in the south, patrolling the capital, providing a sense of security to civilian leaders like the president. President Dioncounda Traoré spent May and June convalescing after pro-coup protestors broke into his office and beat him with the helmet of a palace guard.
—Julian E. Barnes, Joe Lauria and David Gauthier-Villars contributed to this article.
- ECOWAS, UN Officials Set to Meet Over Mali (voanews.com)
- Foreign jihadists pour into northern Mali (dawn.com)
- Inside al-Qaeda’s new home (smh.com.au)
- Zuma says military intervention possible to end Mali crisis – Xinhua (news.xinhuanet.com)
- UN Passes Mali Resolution (blogs.voanews.com)
- France Says International Intervention in Mali Weeks Away (blogs.voanews.com)