French troops are reported to have arrived in Mali amid a rapid escalation of international efforts to intervene in the country, where Islamist groups are continuing to clash with the army for control of the desert north.The French president, François Hollande, and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, are expected to issue statements shortly on the situation in the country and France’s role there.
The French foreign office has advised ex-pats to leave Mali because of the security situation.
A Malian official told Associated Press that French military had arrived in the troubled west African country to help its military amid an advance by radical Islamists.
Colonel Abdrahmane Baby, a military operations adviser for the foreign affairs ministry, said French troops were in the country but gave no details about how many or what they were doing.
The announcement confirmed reports from residents in central Mali who said they had seen western military personnel arrive and that planes had landed there throughout the night.
Earlier on Friday, Hollande said France was “ready to stop the terrorists’ advance if it continues”. In a speech to the country’s diplomatic corps, he said: “I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations security council resolution.
“[The rebels] have even tried to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali. France, like its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept that.”
The tough-talking if ambiguous announcement by Hollande came after a plea for assistance from Mali’s embattled president, Dioncounda Traoré, who has been under growing pressure in Mali to fight back against Islamist control of the north. The UN called for the swift deployment of an international force to Mali.
Al-Qaida-linked groups have controlled north Mali since the army deserted a campaign against Tuareg and Islamist rebels, followed by a military coup last March.
On Thursday rebels captured the town of Konna, less than 40 miles from the strategic city and army base of Mopti. The situation in Konna is described as complicated, with army personnel still in the town but rebels now in control.
“There are Islamists controlling Konna, but they are integrated into the population, it is very difficult for the army to fight them,” said Boubakar Hamadoun, editor of the Bamako-based newspaper Mali Demain, who has reporters based in the north. “It is a very complicated situation.”
Hamadoun cast doubt on reports that Douentza, one of the southernmost towns under Islamist control, had been recaptured by the Malian army this week. “There are some army personnel in Douentza in strategic positions, but the rebels are still very much in control of the town,” he said.
The renewed fighting follows the disintegration of a ceasefire between one of the Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, and the government. It has sparked panic in Mopti and other towns south of the de facto border between government and Islamist control, and prompted concerns in the international community that the Islamist groups – who operate a drug trafficking and kidnap economy in northern Mali and other Sahelian countries – could capture more ground.
Hollande’s announcement marked a radical departure from recent agreements that limited the role of French and other international forces to providing Mali’s army with training and logistical support.
France, the former colonial power in Mali and other countries in the Sahel region, has hundreds of troops stationed across west and central Africa. This month it declined to provide a military intervention to another former colony, the Central African Republic, whose government is also under threat from rebel groups.
A UN security council resolution has been passed, paving the way for military intervention in Mali, but the UN’s special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said in November there would be no deployment until September.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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