Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fighting Erupts In Timbuktu Involving French and Malian Forces

Fighting erupts after car bombing in Mali

4:48pm EDT
By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian soldiers backed by French fighter jets battled Islamist rebels in Timbuktu on Sunday after insurgents used a car bomb as cover to infiltrate the northern desert town, sources said.

The French-led offensive in Mali has pushed a mix of Islamists out of their northern strongholds and remote mountain bases but the militants have hit back with several suicide attacks and guerilla-style raids.

At least one Malian soldier was killed and four injured in Sunday's fighting in the ancient Saharan trading hub 1,000 km (600 miles) north of the capital Bamako, according to a Mali government communique issued on Sunday evening.

It said that 21 Islamist rebels were also killed.
"It started after a suicide car bombing around 2200, that served to distract the military and allow a group of jihadists to infiltrate the city by night," said Mali army Captain Modibo Naman Traore.

Bilal Toure, a member of Timbuktu's crisis committee set up after the town was recaptured from Islamist control in January, said he saw a French plane firing on the rebel positions. He said fighting had died down since nightfall.

"The situation settled down after around 1900 but everyone is still staying indoors," he said.

The attack reflected the challenge of securing Mali as France prepares to reduce its troop presence and hand over to the ill-equipped Malian army and a more than 7,000-strong regional African force.

Mali's defense ministry said on Saturday that two Nigerian soldiers in the regional African force were killed when their convoy struck a mine outside Ansongo, near the Niger border.

France launched its intervention in Mali in January to halt an advance by northern al Qaeda-linked rebels towards Bamako.
President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that France will reduce its troop numbers in Mali to 2,000 by July and to 1,000 by the end of the year, down from 4,000 at present.

The West African former colony is to hold presidential and legislative elections in July - vital steps to stabilizing the gold- and cotton-producer after a military coup a year ago paved the way for the northern rebel takeover.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Stephen Powell)

French, Mali troops fight street battles with Islamists in Timbuktu


BAMAKO — French and Malian troops battled Islamist fighters in the city of Timbuktu in day-long clashes Sunday that left three jihadists and one Malian soldier dead, military sources said.

The Islamists began their assault with a suicide bomb attack on an army checkpoint late Saturday on the edge of the fabled Saharan city that left a Malian soldier wounded.

Militants then infiltrated the city, which French and Malian soldiers recaptured from Islamist rebels in January.

Malian troops battled the rebels and were later joined by a French unit of around 50 soldiers and got further back-up from French fighter jets. A French soldier was wounded in the fighting, the military said in Paris.
Battles continued as night fell on Sunday.

"Jihadists have infiltrated the centre of Timbuktu... Our men are fighting them with the support of a unit of our French partners," a Malian officer told AFP by telephone.

The officer said fighting began when the Islamist rebels opened fire on two sides of the centre of the city, targeting a hotel serving as the temporary residence for the region's governor as well as a Malian military base.

A Malian security source said the governor and two foreign journalists had been among the people evacuated from the targeted hotel.

The fighting left three jihadists and one Malian soldier dead, officials said.

An army source requesting anonymity said a Nigerian hostage died during a shoot-out between Malian troops and his captor -- an Islamist rebel seen wearing a bomb-belt who had holed up in a house in the northern part of the city.

Mali has been the target of a series of attacks claimed by Islamist insurgents since France launched a military intervention in January against Al-Qaeda-linked groups that had seized the north of the country.

The French-led operation has forced the extremists from the cities they seized in the chaotic aftermath of Mali's military coup in March 2012.

But French and African forces have faced continuing suicide blasts and guerrilla attacks in reclaimed territory.

On March 21, a suicide bomber blew up a car near the Timbuktu airport at the start of an overnight assault on the city.

The blast killed one Malian soldier. Around 10 Islamist fighters were killed in the ensuing fighting with French and Malian forces.

The attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of three Islamist groups that had seized the north.

MUJAO said it had "opened a new front in Timbuktu", which had not come under attack since French-led forces entered the city on January 28 -- unlike Gao, which has been hit by a string of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks.

A landmine blast killed two Malian soldiers near Gao on Saturday.

The same day, Mali's interim leader Dioncounda Traore appointed Mohamed Salia Sokona -- a former government minister and retired ambassador -- to head a new commission tasked with fostering reconciliation in the conflict-torn west African nation.

Aside from its chairman and two vice-chairmen -- who were also named -- the commission will have another 30 members.

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is due to visit Mali on April 5, on Sunday welcomed the first appointments made to the Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission, calling it "an important step toward political reconciliation".

French troops seize 7 tons of firearms from Mali rebels

March 30, 2013 20:23

French troops have seized seven tons of looted and smuggled army weapons from rebels in a raid in northeastern Mali. Three tons of hand grenades, ammunition for firearms, mortars, and anti-tank missiles were handed to the Malian army.

The arsenal was seized in the Ifoghas Mountains, where French and African troops have been tracking rebel fighters.

The weapons were sorted by French experts prior to delivery and only some of them proved to be operational, said the French Colonel Jean Frederick, AFP reports.

"Only 15-20 percent of weapons found can be recovered and used in the future for other purposes without life risk. The rest will be destroyed so they don’t pose a threat to the civilians," said Frederick, who is responsible for the provision of French troops in Mali.

The majority of these weapons were looted from government military bases and smuggled into Mali from other African countries.

According to UN reports thousands of firearms have been illegally trafficked to other African nations from Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi regime in 2011.

Russian president Vladimir Putin previously raised concerns about the Malian crisis directly connecting it with the military solution of the Libyan uprising.

“Upheaval in Libya, accompanied by the uncontrolled proliferation of arms, contributed to the deterioration of the situation in Mali,” Putin said at the end of January.

Former US Secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s words on the matter echoed Putin’s standpoint. During Clinton’s hearing on the September 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drew a line between Libya and the on-going conflict in Mali saying “…There is no doubt that the Malian remnants of AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] have weapons from Libya."

France launched the intervention in Mali in January after the escalation of a crisis between government and Islamist insurgents who took over the north of the country a year ago. The French army succeeded in driving the Islamists out of the main northern cities. French troops are still stationed in Mali though there have been talks of troop withdrawal after the Islamists’ were out of the country. President Francois Hollande said on Friday that French troops will stay in Mali to fight Islamist militants at least through the end of 2013 until a legitimate government can take over. Though he added that he expected more than 4,000 French troops in Mali to pull out in late April.

France’s role in the Mali rebellion is disputed, senior editor of the Executive Intelligence Review, Jeff Steinberg, previously told RT in an interview.

“The rebel operations in northern Mali have existed for quite some time, but it was only in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Gaddafi government in Libya – which was promoted by France, Britain and the United States in particular – it was only after that that you had a massive flow of weapons out of Libya into the hands of the rebels, which basically took a low-intensity conflict and threw it into a much greater crisis where the rebels outgunned the Malian army,” Steinberg told RT.

Sunday, 31 March 2013 KSA 09:21 - GMT 06:21

Mali Tuaregs say nine killed in battle with jihadists

Clashes in northern Mali between a Tuareg separatist group and jihadist fighters have left nine dead, Tuareg officials said Saturday.

The fighting pitted Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups against the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) -- a secular separatist Tuareg group that currently supports the government.

“After the fighting, we recorded four dead and two wounded in our own ranks... There were five dead on their side,” Mohamed Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a top MNLA official based in neighboring Burkina Faso, told AFP.

Mossa Ag Attaher, an MNLA leader based in the northern Malian city of Kidal, added that one jihadist fighter was captured by his men.

The fighting lasted about two hours, they said, and took place on Friday between Gao and Kidal, two of the three main cities in northern Mali, which was under Islamist control for nine months until France intervened in January.

According to the Tuareg officials, the five Islamist fighters included three Algerians, a Mauritanian and one Malian.

The two MNLA officials disagreed however on their opponents' affiliation.

One said they were from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and the other said they belonged to “Signatories In Blood,” a group recently founded by a former Qaeda chief, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Many former Tuareg rebels who had worked as mercenaries in Libya returned to Mali bristling with weapons after Muammar Qaddafi’s demise in late 2011 and rekindled their decades-old struggle for independence.

The MNLA launched a military offensive in January 2012 and conquered the entire north but was soon overpowered by its allies from the Qaeda-linked groups based in the region.

The secular Tuareg group has since sided with the Malian government and the French forces leading the re-conquest. Its forces have engaged jihadist groups on several occasions in recent months.

No source among the jihadist networks being hunted down in northern Mali could be immediately reached to confirm Friday’s clashes.

28 March 2013
Last updated at 19:30 ET

Mali conflict: Hollande sets French troop timetable

France will reduce the number of its troops fighting in Mali to 1,000 by the end of the year, President Francois Hollande says.

"We have achieved our objectives," Mr Hollande said in a TV interview.

He said troop levels would be halved to 2,000 by July. Withdrawals are due to start next month.

A French-led intervention that began in January has taken back the main cities of northern Mali from Islamist groups, though fighting continues in the north.

Mr Hollande acknowledged that one goal, the release of six French hostages being held in the Sahel, had still not been achieved.

He stressed that France would not pay ransoms to get the hostages freed. It is feared that one of the hostages has already been killed.

The French president also said he was determined that Mali should hold elections as planned in July, though he said France would not back any favoured candidate.

"The time when France chose African heads of state is over," he told France 2 TV channel in a wide-ranging interview.

Islamist groups took over major cities, including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, in the aftermath of a coup in March 2012. They imposed a strict form of Islamic law in the area.

France intervened after saying the al-Qaeda-linked militants threatened to march on the capital, Bamako.

Troops from several West African countries have been deploying to Mali to take over from the French-led mission.

The African force currently numbers about 6,300 soldiers.

Mr Hollande said the French troops left in Mali at the end of the year would probably be part of a UN peacekeeping mission that France has called on the Security Council to set up.

Tough EU mission to overhaul Mali army kicks off

As France prepares to withdraw its 4,000 troops, the first of four Malian battalions begins training with battle-hardened European instructors on April 2

Sun, Mar 31, 2013

BRUSSELS - The EU begins an ambitious top-to-toe overhaul Tuesday of Mali's ragtag army, far from ready to take the place of foreign troops to defend the West African nation against fresh attacks by Islamist insurgents.

As France prepares to withdraw its 4,000 troops after routing Al Qaeda-linked forces from northern cities, the first of four Malian battalions begins training with battle-hardened European instructors on April 2 as part of a wider effort to bring the army up to scratch as quickly as possible.

"Objectively, it must be entirely rebuilt," said French General Francois Lecointre, who heads the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM).

Underpaid, ill-equipped and riven by divisions, Mali's armed forces fell apart last year when well-armed Islamist extremists seized the country's vast northern reaches, imposing Sharia law and terrorising locals.

Today no one knows exactly how many soldiers are left, probably around 6,000 - about half of which will train with the EUTM over the next year.

"The Malian authorities are well aware of the need to reconstruct the army, very aware that Mali almost disappeared due to the failings of the institution," said General Lecointre.

Class is at a dusty green-shuttered military academy 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the capital, Bamako, its grounds now packed with rows of EU-supplied troop transport vehicles, a field hospital, tents, and trunk-loads of equipment.

After 10 weeks of training, the first 670 Malians are expected to be ready for combat by end June/early July and deployed to northern Mali, where French and Chadian troops are still on the lookout for pockets of jihadist fighters.

The French are to hand over to an African force of 6,300 likely to come under a UN mandate in the coming weeks. But UN leader Ban Ki-Moon said last week that up to 11,200 troops were needed as well as a second "parallel" force.

While mission commander Lecointre expects the last batch of Malian soldiers to graduate in early 2014, he says the EUTM - running on a budget of 12.3 million euros (S$19.6 million) - may have to be extended.

Speaking in Bamako, Mali Defence Minister Yamoussa Camara deemed the 15-month mission "too short" but said it "will enable the training of a core of instructors who will be able to continue training others."

A major issue, according to Lecointre, is the army's poor and "heterogenous" equipment, made up of materiel donated by richer nations over two decades.

"Mali accepted equipment from any country offering but it doesn't function as a whole and often can be either obsolete or over-sophisticated."

EU nations were ready to donate equipment but too often "are inclined to give equipment they no longer want, whilst we are seeking above all to avoid receiving a patchwork of weaponry," he added.

The bigger problem however is the army's lack of a clear hierarchy and chain of command, with no "esprit de corps". "The army is very unstructured," Lecointre said, with soldiers more often than not banding together for one-off missions and not training.

A total 23 EU nations are taking part in the 550-strong EU mission, including 200 trainers, a protection force of 150, another 150 providing medical and logistical support, and 50 administrative staff.

France, which sent troops to its former colony in January to block an advance on the capital by the extremists, is the lead country in the mission, followed by Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, Britain and Belgium. Lithuania is taking part in such an operation for the first time.

In February, the EUTM sent a score of officers to Bamako to take stock of the state of the armed forces. A plan was submitted to the local authorities in March on how to rebuild the army which will also be drilled in relations with civil society and protection of human rights.

Once trained, each of the four Mali battalions will have a unified command with an infantry-mobile core, backed by artillery and engineering, and a logistics component.

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