The first British war planes sent to assist French military strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali arrived in France last night, where they will be loaded with equipment before flying to Africa today.
The unarmed RAF C-17 Globemaster aircraft may be followed to Mali by UK personnel to help train troops, Minister for Africa Mark Simmonds said, as France launched air strikes on northern targets.
The action followed talks on Saturday night between David Cameron and President François Hollande.
Downing Street said there was no question of Britain being involved in combat missions, but British troops might help to train Malian government soldiers. The C17 will be loaded with equipment in France before flying on to Mali today. It may also be used to collect troops promised by three neighbouring African countries to join the 400 French soldiers already on the ground.
French Rafale fighter-bombers – refuelled in mid-air by US aircraft –flew 2,000 miles from bases in France today to attack columns of Islamist rebels threatening to overrun the government-held south of the country. The French planes were also reported to have attacked rebel bases and ammunition dumps near Gao in the far north of the country.
The French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said that Bamako, the capital of Mali, would have fallen to the Islamist rebels linked to al-Qa’ida within two days if France had not sent helicopters and warplanes to intervene in the civil war on Friday. “We are making air raids the whole time,” he said. “They are going on now. They will go on tonight. They will go on tomorrow.”
Mr Le Drian said that the fighting on Friday and Saturday had halted a rebel column of armed trucks which had menaced the key towns of Sévaré and Mopti. He said that air attacks were trying to stop another column which was attacking in the west. Another key town, Konna, which fell to the rebels on Thursday, was said to have been recaptured.
At least 11 civilians, including three children, were reported to have been killed. The Malian army said that it had lost 11 men. A French helicopter pilot died on Friday after an artery in his leg was severed by a bullet. Sanda Ould Boumama, a spokesman for the rebel group Ansar Dine, told CNN today: “The war has only started… We expect more casualties.”
According to an unconfirmed report, one of the principal rebel leaders – Abdel Krim, known as “Kojak”, second in command of the Ansar Dine movement – died in the fighting on Saturday.
President Hollande said in a brief television address on Friday that he had deployed French forces to stop Mali from becoming an Islamist terrorist base on “Europe’s doorstep”. He announced on Saturday night that he was stepping up security within France and around French buildings abroad in anticipation of possible retaliation. Islamist groups in various countries have threatened “bitter consequences” for France after its Malian intervention and a botched attempt by French Special Forces early on Saturday to rescue a French agent held hostage in Somalia for three years.
Islamist militants in southern Somalia fought off the raid after being tipped off by local people that three helicopters had landed. One French soldier was killed. Another is missing, believed captured. The French agent, known by the code name “Denis Allex”, is believed to have been executed by his captors.
The raid was assumed by many in France to have been forced by the Malian intervention 5,000 miles away. The intervention inevitably risks the lives of nine French hostages held in Africa, including six held by Islamist groups in Mali. Mr Le Drian, insisted today however that the timing of the Somali raid was fixed one month ago.
Mr Hollande’s decision to go to war has been supported across the political spectrum in France – with one exception. The former centre-right Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, said today that Mali could become France’s Iraq. He wrote in the Journal du Dimanche that France was failing to heed the warnings of a “decade of wars lost in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya”.
The immediate French war aim is to halt the rebel advance and prevent the populous, southern half of Mali from falling into Islamist hands. Although 400 French soldiers are already in Mali and more on the way, most of the ground fighting has been left to government troops.
Later this year, France hopes that Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Burkina Faso – which have offered to send 500 troops each – will help the Malian army to recapture the immense stretches of desert controlled by two Islamist rebel groups in the northern half of the country.
Britain’s minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, told Sky News today that a “thoroughly unpleasant regime” had seized the north of Mali with “raping and sexual violence taking place” and children forced to act as soldiers.
“We may well, through a European Union mechanism, provide training and support for the Malian army… It’s absolutely essential, as part of our obligations as a permanent member of the Security Council that we provide assistance when we are requested,” he went on.
Downing Street said: “The Prime Minister has agreed that the UK will provide logistical military assistance to help transport foreign troops and equipment quickly to Mali. We will not be deploying any British personnel in a combat role… Both leaders agreed that the situation in Mali poses a real threat to international security given terrorist activity there.”
Mali: A history of violence
The trade routes of the Sahara once made the region now called Mali among the world’s richest. But for the past century, it has been marred by instability and conflict.
French involvement in Mali dates back more than a hundred years. France began its conquest of what it called the Soudan in 1890, and did not succeed until 1898, with the defeat of Malinké warrior Samory Touré.
Mali gained independence in 1960, when it became a one-party socialist state with Modibo Keita as President. Over the next few decades, the country was to witness a series of military coups and sporadic violence. Alpha Konare became the first democratically elected President in 1992.
An uprising led by separatist Tuaregs began in 1990, and by 1994 the country was in a state of civil war. Peace was negotiated in 1995, but conflict was sparked in 2007, when Tuareg rebels launched attacks on the Malian military. A renewed Tuareg rebellion began in January last year, with attacks on northern towns. Three months later, Tuareg rebels seized control of northern Mali and declared independence. The largest Tuareg fighting group merged with Islamist Ansar Dine rebels and declared northern Mali an Islamic state.
But the alliance did not last long. Ansar Dine and its ally al-Qai’da turned on the Tuaregs in June last year and captured the cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. Islamists continued to make gains throughout the year, leading to the country’s President asking France for help.