Al-Qaeda fighters have advanced beyond their stronghold in northern Mali for the first time, striking towards a vital garrison town protecting the route to the capital.The latest fighting raised fears that even more of Mali could fall into the hands of “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) and its local allies. Last year, they seized three northern regions covering 300,000 square miles – an area more than three times bigger than Britain.
AQIM’s fighters are now trying to capture more territory. Hundreds of fighters have been mobilised, particularly in the northern city of Timbuktu, and sent southwards to fight the national army.
Colonel Yamoussa Camara, the defence minister, told Radio France International that “jihadist elements” had gathered in strength. Yesterday, they attacked the government-held town of Konna in central Mali.
If Konna were to fall, AQIM’s forces would be only 40 miles from Mopti, the last garrison town between them and the capital, Bamako. If AQIM then captured Mopti, the main road to Bamako would be open and there would be little to stop them from moving into the rest of Mali.
The army is believed to have bombarded the extremists with artillery as they attacked Konna. But AQIM and its allies from the Touareg minority routed the government’s soldiers when they captured the north last year. Western diplomats in Bamako doubt the army’s ability to withstand a determined assault on Mopti.
Last month, the United Nations Security Council authorised the deployment of an African force to recapture the north. The plan calls for 3,000 troops from other African countries to join a similar number from Mali’s own army to reunite the country. America, France and Britain have offered to provide logistics and intelligence.
But Mali’s civilian prime minister was overthrown by the army in December. The military chiefs, notably Capt Amadou Sanogo, wield de facto control over what remains of the central government. They are wary of outside military intervention, fearing this could threaten their own power.
Even if these suspicions could be overcome, any force would take months to assemble and would also be hampered by the local rainy season. An operation to recapture the north is unlikely to start before September. In the meantime, AQIM and its allies appear to be taking the opportunity to capture more territory and strengthen their hold over the northern two-thirds of the country.
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