Defence

  • Hollande in Abu Dhabi - French opinion polls gave him 75% support on Mali (Photo: elysee.fr)

French army to stay until 'Mali is safe'

16.01.13 @ 11:07

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - President Francois Hollande has said French troops in Mali are there to do much more than stopping rebels from taking Bamako.

The French leader told press on a visit to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday (15 January) that: "We have one objective - it's to make sure that when we leave, when we end the intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory."

The task he outlined is a big one.

Mali is nominally ruled by a transitional government following a coup last year, but a military junta is widely believed to still wield power.

Its northern half is in the hands of a Tourag tribal force, the MNLA, who have declared independence and called it Azawad.

Its unpoliced borders with Algeria, Mauritania and Niger have also seen Islamic extremist movements, drugs and arms traffickers and kidnap gangs with links across north and west Africa create strongholds in the MNLA region.

Some of the groups have their own names - such as Ansar Dine and The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao). Some of them are called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) by Western countries. But it is hard to tell who is who in any given pick-up truck containing men with AK47s or rocket launchers, while the MNLA, for its part, says it wants to help France fight the jihadists.

Hollande talked tough when asked in Abu Dhabi what French soldiers will do when they encounter "Islamists." He said: "Destroy them. Take them captive, if possible."

But he also paid tribute to the sensitivity of France going to war in its ex-colonial territory.

He noted that Mali and its neighbours, Arab countries, the UN Security Council, the US and fellow EU members want France to do the job.

He added that when a multi-national African force - from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo - gets set up in Mali in the next "few weeks," it will take over ground operations.

"France has no vocation to stay in Mali," he said.

In the meantime, French helicopters and jets from bases in Chad and Mali bombed enemy positions for the fifth day in a row on Wednesday.

French transport planes from Burkina Faso, Chad, the Ivory Coast and Senegal are also putting together a 2,500-strong French infantry force.

"The terrorist groups and jihadists must be clearly distinguished from the representative movements of north Mali and the people of this region in all its diversity. Neither these movements or these people are being targeted," French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in Paris on Tuesday.

"The combat continues and it will be long, I imagine," he told French radio on Wednesday.

Several EU countries - Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK - have pledged to give France logistical support.

Foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday will flesh out who will do what and how to speed up the deployment of a 500-man-strong EU mission to train Malian soldiers.

But for some MEPs, the reaction is not good enough.

French Green deputy Daniel Cohn-Bondit told a debate in Strasbourg on Tuesday that EU help amounts to: "We'll hold your coat, but you go off and fight."

Austrian independent Andreas Molzer said: "Once again, in the case of a crisis, one big EU country has to take the lead to get the chestnuts out of the fire."

For her part, EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton noted that there is no EU army.

"We don't have a European defence force. What we have is groupings of defence ministers and foreign ministers and the intergovernmental work they do - that's the structure we use," she said.

"You may want to have in reserve a [European] force that can go in. But what you saw is a member state responding very quickly, very effectively ... in conjunction with us in Brussels ... [to make sure] that additional humanitarian aid is going in, additional development support is going in, support for the government to be able to cope, training for their army," she added.

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