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The Journal Gazette

Friday, January 11, 2013 8:13 am

France: ready to stop advance of Mali rebels


President Francois Hollande said Friday that France will be ready to intervene to stop al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali who have been moving toward its capital.

The muscular if purposely ambiguous announcement by the leader of France, the former colonial overseer in west Africa and the Western power with the greatest muscle there today, came after Mali's president appealed for French help in stopping the rebels' advance.

Until now, France - like other EU countries - has limited its plans for assistance to training and logistics support for Mali's troubled army, and has deferred to Mali and its African neighbors to resolve the crisis. France has hundreds of troops across western Africa, with bases or sites in places such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon.

But on Friday, Hollande went a step further, saying he was ready to respond to Mali's call for help.

The rebels "have even tried to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali," he said in a speech to France's diplomatic corps. "France, like its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept that."

He said France "will be ready to stop the terrorists' advance, if it continues." He did not provide details of how it would do that.

France would act under authority of three recent U.N. Security Council resolutions that go so far as to call on member states to help Mali resolve its crisis in the face of a terrorist threat, both through political and military means, French diplomats have said.

Speaking to The Associated Press after the president's speech, a top French diplomat said his country has completed its deployment of two surveillance drones to the region - though he would not specify where for security reasons - to help boost reconnaissance of the rebels' movements and activities. The drones - which are unarmed - have not taken to the air yet, he said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said France's Western allies, including the United States and Britain, have been told of the new French stance, which has come to fruition in just a last few days in light of the rebel advance.

The official said France is now able to deploy military assets - notably air power - over Mali "very quickly" and insisted that Hollande's speech was "not just words. ... When you say that you are ready to intervene, you have to be." He declined to provide details about how such military action might take shape. France's position has been complicated because terrorist groups in northern Mali currently hold seven French hostages.

For months, Hollande has said France would not send ground forces into Mali, and France was sticking to those plans, the official said. But Hollande's speech suggested that French air power could be used, the official said - a shift from recent public statements from Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that it would not be.

Hollande's speech also appeared set to possibly accelerate the timetable for European intervention in Mali, which until now has focused on logistic support and training for Malian troops. France has planned to lead any EU contribution, and Germany has been among those countries that have offered to help on that.

"There will be no sole military solution in Mali. It would neither work nor would it be sustainable and stable," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin on Friday. "Therefore it is decisive that we intensify our political efforts, that we resume talks for Mali with African mediation."

Mali was plunged into turmoil after a March coup created a security vacuum. Secular Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, took half of the north, as a new homeland. But months later, they were kicked out by Islamist groups allied with al-Qaida's north Africa branch which have imposed strict Shariah law throughout the north.

Extremists captured the city of Konna on Thursday and are threatening the city of Mopti, which has 100,000 inhabitants. The capture of Mopti would leave the capital, Bamako, more vulnerable.

A French diplomatic official said Friday that Malian President Dioncounda Traore was expected to meet with Hollande in Paris on Wednesday.

Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for Mali's enfeebled military to take back the north and sought backing from the United Nations. The Security Council last month authorized an African-led force to support Malian troops in recovering the north - an area the size of Texas - but set no timeline for military action. The council also called for the rapid deployment of the African-led force, though such plans haven't been carried out yet.

The retreat by the Malian military in Thursday's fighting, raised new questions in closed Security Council consultations about its ability to help lead a regional intervention, council diplomats said. The Malian army melted away in the face of the offensive, the diplomats said.