INTERNATIONAL >French ground troops in close-quarter combat with Islamists

PARIS - Agence France-Presse

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Handout photo by French army of armoured vehicles being loaded with other material in Russian Antonov 124 cargo aircrafts en route to Bamako, on January 13, 2013 at the Evreux military Base. Photo by ECPAD/ABACAPRESS.COM

Handout photo by French army of armoured vehicles being loaded with other material in Russian Antonov 124 cargo aircrafts en route to Bamako, on January 13, 2013 at the Evreux military Base. Photo by ECPAD/ABACAPRESS.COM

French troops engaged in close combat with Islamist rebels on Wednesday in Mali as Al-Qaeda-linked fighters attacked a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria taking several foreigners hostage.
After days of airstrikes on Islamist positions in the territory they have occupied since April, French and Malian troops battled the insurgents in the small town of Diabaly, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Bamako.
"The special forces are currently in Diabaly, in close-quarter combat with the Islamists. The Malian army is also in place," a Malian security source said on condition of anonymity.
This was confirmed by a regional security source.
The source added that French soldiers were "on alert" in the town of Niono, 50 kilometres south of Diabaly, as well as in the nearby town of Markala.
Diabaly was seized on Monday by fighters led by Algerian Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as the Islamists remained on the offensive even as French fighter jets pounded their positions.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the western zone where Diabaly lies was home to "the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups. It's under way there but it's difficult." Meanwhile in Algeria state media said that one person had been killed and seven wounded, two of them foreigners, in an attack on a British oil giant BP field in Amenas, in the Sahara desert.
The gas plant is located 1,300 kilometres (810 miles) southeast of Algiers, close to the Libyan border.
An Algerian deputy said five staff -- one French national and four Japanese -- had been taken hostage.
The Irish foreign ministry said a man from Northern Ireland was also among the hostages. A Norwegian man was also reported taken hostage.
"We are members of Al-Qaeda and we came from northern Mali," an Islamic militant told AFP by telephone in claiming responsibility for the attack. He said his group belonged to a fighting unit led by renowned one-eyed jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM leader.
The attack was the first reprisal by the Islamists who have vowed to strike back, and comes after Algeria threw its support behind the Mali offensive and opened its airspace to French fighter jets.
The Islamists who have controlled an area larger than France in northern Mali since April, have fled many of their strongholds since the French army launched its assault on January 11. But they claim their retreat was merely tactical.
Both Paris and Islamist experts warn the jihadists are better armed and trained than expected and the battle is likely to be drawn-out and complex.
A first contingent of 190 Nigerian troops was due to arrive in Bamako on Wednesday as part of a regional force of over 3,000 soldiers from Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that his troops were set to triple from 800 at present to 2,500 men, and were facing some 1,300 Islamic fighters.
As the ground offensive got underway a French detachment was also sent to secure a strategic bridge on the Niger river near the town of Markala in western Mali which leads to the capital Bamako.
President Francois Hollande vowed his forces would crush the Islamist fighters.
"What do we plan to do with the terrorists? Destroy them. Capture them, if possible and make sure that they can do no harm in the future," he said on Tuesday during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
West African army chiefs in Bamako were expected to resume talks on Wednesday on the roll-out of the UN-mandated regional intervention force which is expected to shore up the French offensive.
Mali has been effectively split in two since April 2012, when Islamists took advantage of a short-lived coup in Bamako and an offensive launched by Tuareg separatists in the north to seize half of the country.
Western countries had voiced fears that the zone could become Al-Qaeda's leading global safe haven and be used to launch attacks on targets in Europe.
However a proposed African-led intervention remained mired in indecision after months of planning, and the Islamists last week pushed into the government-held centre, seizing the town of Konna, and vowed to push further south.
The feared advance on the capital prompted France to intervene, a decision widely supported at home and in the international community.
Germany, Belgium, Britain and Canada have offered planes or troop transporters while Italy also offered logistical support.
At home, France has deployed 700 troops in and around Paris, indicating mounting concern over potential reprisal attacks.
The UN and aid agencies have expressed fears for civilians caught up in the conflict, as 144,500 refugees have fled to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria and another 230,000 were internally displaced.


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