France intervenes to stem Islamist advance in Mali

French troops have already been joined by forces from Nigeria and Senegal as an international intervention force planned for later this year

Paris

French forces have arrived in Mali to stem the recent advances made by al-Qa'ida-backed Islamists who control the northern half of the country.

The French President, François Hollande, made a brief appearance on television last night to inform the French people that their army was fighting alongside government forces. He said that the intervention had started yesterday afternoon with UN support. "Our action will last however long is necessary," he said. "France will always be ready to defend the rights of a people which wishes to live in freedom and democracy."

French troops have already been joined by forces from Nigeria and Senegal as an international intervention force planned for later this year was hastily brought forward to meet a recent Islamist offensive. Colonel Abdrahmane Baby, from the West African nation's foreign affairs ministry, confirmed that forces from France were in the country but refused to say how many or where.

An uneasy ceasefire along a 300 mile frontline between the army and the militants was broken this week for the first time since Islamists and Tuareg rebels conquered the north of Mali last spring. The loss of the desert north cut the country in two and plunged the Malian army into disarray. The political crisis was made worse when a military junta in March seized power from the democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure.

The Islamists were this week able to capture Konna, a town about 350 miles from the capital Bamako that was the forward base of the Malian army. Government forces have now retreated to Sevare in the central Mali area of Mopti where they were being supported by French special forces. Residents of Mopti said that troops from the former colonial power had arrived at an airstrip nearby. Military analysts said the Mopti airstrip was the likely target of the rebel advance as its capture or destruction would complicate the use air power against them.

For months France has been trying to coax the UN and Mali's neighbours into a military campaign to reconquer the north. The UN Security Council passed a resolution late last year approving a foreign intervention but its deployment was not expected before September. The plan has been attacked as unrealistic by US military officials as it called for 3,000 troops to hold an area the size of Texas and to be led by Malian forces who have consistently lost out to the well-armed and motivated rebels. However, the sudden loss of further territory may now bring that operation forward.

Aid agencies who have been dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees have now been forced to evacuate the central band of the country. Some 412,000 people have been uprooted by the fighting, according the UN. This has exacerbated a food crisis already affecting countries throughout the Sahel region.

The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières warned yesterday that the 55,000 Malian refugees in neighbouring Mauritania face serious malnutrition and high mortality rates.

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