Allies help as France starts Mali land op

Allies help as France starts Mali land op

Allies help as France starts Mali land op

AA Photo

French troops pressed northward in Mali yesterday toward territory occupied by Islamist militants for months, military officials said, announcing the start of a land assault that will place soldiers in direct combat.

French army chief Edouard Guillaud said ground forces were starting their campaign against an alliance of Islamist fighters comprised of al-Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM and Mali’s homegrown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militant movements. “In the coming hours – but I cannot tell you if it’s in one hour or 72 hours - we will be fighting them directly,” he said.

French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said soldiers were headed away from the relative safety of the capital toward the rebel strongholds in the north of the West African former French colony. “Now French ground troops are making their way north,” the defense minister told RTL radio.

France moved a column of armored vehicles into position on Jan. 15 in the nearby town of Niono, near the capital of Bamako. “French forces have secured Niono to stop the Islamists advancing to Segou, while the Malian army is securing the border area with Mauritania,” said one source. “They are now encircled and a final assault is only a matter of time.”

‘Fight is long, difficult’

In a sixth day of air assaults, French fighter jets also struck the headquarters of the Islamic police in Niafunke, near the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu, local residents said.

Le Drian said the French intervention was going well but that the fight would be long and difficult. “It’s a little more difficult in the west, where we have the toughest, most fanatical and best-organized groups. It’s underway there but it’s difficult.”

“We are in a very positive situation compared with last week, but fighting continues and it will be long,” Le Drian said. On Jan. 15, France announced it was increasing the number of troops from 800 to 2,500. The offensive was to have been led by thousands of African troops pledged by Mali’s neighbors, but they have yet to arrive.

Germany’s Defense Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, said yesterday the country will send two military aircraft to help transport African troops to drive back insurgents in Mali. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she planned on taking up the topic of Mali aid with French President François Hollande when he visits Berlin next week to determine “whether there are further expectations of help.”