France on alert as Mali campaign triggers backlash fears
PARIS - Agence France-Presse
A French soldiers patrols under the Eiffel tower, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013. France has ordered tightened security in public buildings and transport following action against radical Islamists both in Mali and Somalia, French President Francois Hollande said yesterday. AP Photo/Michel EulerFrance was in a state of high alert on Sunday as military action against Islamic radicals in Mali and Somalia triggered fears of a backlash on home soil, AFP has reported.
Armed troops patrolled rail and subway stations in Paris and security around airports and public buildings was stepped up as Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted that the authorities were monitoring suspected Islamic militants based in France.
"The terrorist danger is permanent, it is not a new thing," Le Drian said. "But we have to be very careful and take every precaution necessary in what is a very sensitive situation." Le Drian acknowledged there were Islamic radicals based in France who are thought capable of becoming involved in terrorist actions, but he stressed that these individuals were subject to tight surveillance.
The existence of a home-grown Islamist threat in France became clear last year when Mohamed Merah went on a shooting spree in and around the southern city of Toulouse, killing three French paratroopers, a Rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren before being killed himself in a police siege.
The Merah killings were followed by the dismantling, in October, of a suspected Islamist "terrorist cell" that prosecutors described as the most serious internal threat the country has faced since the Algerian-based GIA carried out a string of deadly bombings in the 1990s.
It was a splinter group of the GIA that evolved into what is now known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the main organisation pulling the strings in northern Mali.
The increased security came as French warplanes bombarded Islamists in central Mali for a third day and in the aftermath of a botched commando raid in Somalia to free a French intelligence agent held there since 2009.
One French soldier died in the operation, another is missing presumed dead and the Paris authorities have also said they believe the hostage, named has been killed.
At least 17 Islamist guerillas were killed in the operation, according to French sources, and witnesses said at least eight civilians were caught in the crossfire.
In Mali, the army claimed that up to 100 Islamist fighters were killed during the liberation of the central town of Konna on Friday.
Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups which controls the north of Mali, and the Shebab, Al Qaeda's local franchise in Somalia, have both warned that France will face retaliation over these deaths.
"In the end, it will be the French citizens who will inevitably taste the bitter consequences of their government's devil-may-care attitude towards hostages," Shebab said in a statement.
Despite the failure of the Somalia mission, President Francois Hollande's actions there and in Mali have so far been backed by other mainstream political leaders.
Former Prime Minister Dominique Villepin did however strike a dissenting note on Sunday when he warned that the operation in Mali was destined to fail because Paris had not clearly established what it was trying to achieve in its former colony.
"The gung-ho unanimity in favour of war and the deja vu arguments about a war on terror worry me," he wrote in the Journal du Dimanche, adding: "Only a political process will bring peace to Mali."
French jets pound Mali as top Islamist reported killed
BAMAKO - Agence France-Presse
French Mirage fighter jets on Sunday pounded Mali for a third straight
day and a top Islamist leader was reported killed as African troops
headed to the west African country.
"There were (air strikes) last night, there are now and there will be today and tomorrow," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in televised remarks.
"Our intervention is ongoing and we will continue in order to make them (Islamist fighters) retreat and allow Malian and African forces to go forward and re-establish the territorial integrity of the country," Le Drian said.
The first troops promised by African nations were expected in Mali on Sunday to join the campaign.
Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal on Saturday each pledged 500 troops for an African-led intervention force.
Also Sunday a security source said a lieutenant of Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghaly was killed in fighting to recapture the central town of Konna from the rebels.
"The Islamist fighters suffered a real setback with the death of Abdel 'Kojak' Krim," the source said.
On Saturday French troops arrived in the capital Bamako, flying in from bases in Ivory Coast and Chad, a Malian officer told AFP. He refused to give details of their numbers or their mission.
Colonel Paul Geze, the French mission's commander, told Mali's ORTM television he hoped their mission would succeed "as quickly as possible, in the best conditions possible".
ORTM said the French contingent would be at full strength by Monday. It has been deployed in the capital to protect the 6,000-strong expatriate community.
Both France and Mali on Saturday hailed the success of their joint operation to push back an advance by the Islamists who control the north of the country.
Since taking power in the north last year, the Islamists have destroyed centuries-old Muslim mausoleums they see as heretical and imposed an extreme form of Islamic law including floggings, amputations and sometimes executions.
"Our foes have suffered heavy losses," French President Francois Hollande said, stressing that the French intervention had "only one goal, which is the fight against terrorism".
A statement late Saturday from Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore said 11 of their soldiers had died and some 60 had been wounded in the fighting.
"They fell on the field of honour at Konna," it said.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French Mirage fighters had carried out a second day of air strikes Saturday to stop columns of Islamist fighters from driving south.
A French pilot carrying out air raids had been killed, he added. But the Islamists reportedly suffered heavy losses.
A Malian officer in the central town of Mopti, near the front line, said dozens, possibly as many as a hundred Islamists had been killed in Konna. Residents there described the bodies of men wearing Arab clothing and turbans.
Malian troops recaptured Konna Friday, just a day after it had fallen to the insurgents who had been threatening to continue their advance southward.
Human Rights Watch, citing reports from residents, said at least 10 civilians including three children had died in Konna. Children forced by the Islamists to fight in their ranks had been wounded and possibly killed in the fighting, said HRW's Corinne Dufka.
The Islamists had conscripted the child soldiers in Mali's northeast region of Gao and captured others from neighbouring Niger, she added, calling for their immediate release.
As Western nations praised the French initiative, Britain offered technical support, though no troops on the ground.
Meanwhile French President Hollande said he had ordered tighter security at home following the intervention in Mali, a former French colony.
France "has to take all necessary precautions" in the face of a terrorist threat including increased surveillance of public buildings and transport, he said.
The Islamists seized northern Mali, a territory the size of France, in the wake of last year's March 22 coup which ousted democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.
There were fears the north could become a haven for extremist groups. Some observers feared their recent advance south threatened the whole country.