'We are not messengers of death in Mali', says French colonel


John Lichfield
Wednesday 23 January 2013 19:42 GMT
A French soldier wearing a skeleton mask in a street in Niono on Sunday
A French soldier wearing a skeleton mask in a street in Niono on Sunday (Getty Images)

The French military has distanced itself from a photograph taken during its operations in Mali, after the image of a soldier with his face obscured by a menacing skull bandana went viral.

The French army issued a statement repudiating the use of the bandana, which is sold as an accessory of the violent computer game, Call of Duty. Colonel Thierry Burkhardt, spokesman for the French chiefs of staff, said the image “is not at all representative of the action undertaken in France in Mali at the request of the Malian state”.

“Far from being messengers of death”, Colonel Burkhardt went on, French soldiers were “risking their own lives” to prevent Mali from becoming a terrorist state controlled by militant Islamists.

The photograph was taken last weekend near Niono in central Mali as French and Malian forces advanced to regain ground from a loose alliance of Islamist groups which control the immense deserts and semi-deserts of the north of the country. More than 2,300 French soldiers have arrived in Mali since the operation began.

In the last two days the French and local forces, supported by air-strikes, have advanced without opposition to recapture the towns of Diabaly and Douentza. French media reported today that President François Hollande wanted the advance to extend to one of the larger towns in northern Mali, either Gao or Timbuktu, in the next few days.

Officially, the recapture of northern Mali, which is larger than Spain, is to be left to the Malian army and a multi-national force of at least 3,000 troops from west African countries. Earlier this week, however, the French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, implied that French ground forces would also be involved in the drive to recapture “every square kilometre” of Mali.

France has insisted that its intervention is a “war against terrorism” and not a return to its post-colonial habit of intervening in its former African territories, hence the sensitivity about the soldier wearing the bandana.

The bandana represents the character Ghost, who appears in the Call of Duty video game series about US Special Forces.

Algerian government acknowledges military casualties

Algeria today claimed that it did not sustain heavy losses in the operation to end the Saharan gas plant siege, and that only eight soldiers suffered minor wounds during a four-day siege of a gas plant by al-Qaida-linked militants who took dozens of foreigners hostage.

It was the first acknowledgement by the government of any military casualties in the standoff at the Ain Amenas plant, where 37 hostages and 29 militants died.

The militants, armed with explosives and automatic weapons, had threatened to blow up the entire complex. Algerian troops tried twice to end the crisis, first by firing from attack helicopters before finally launching a ground assault.

The Defense Ministry condemned Wednesday what it called “insinuations” it took heavy losses. It says the eight wounded were already back at work.

Algerian authorities are typically reluctant to announce military losses. AP

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