Analysis: Mali - one African war France could not avoid

Sun Jan 13, 2013 11:21am EST
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By Mark John and John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - Just as its leaders were defining a new "hands-off" strategy for Africa, France has been thrust onto the front line of one of the continent's riskiest battlefields deep in the desert of Mali.

President Francois Hollande's backing of air strikes to halt Islamist rebels advancing on the capital Bamako raises the threat level for eight French hostages held by al Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for the 30,000 French expatriates living in neighboring, mostly Muslim states.

It could also trigger an attack on French soil. But, in what could be the biggest foreign policy decision of his presidency, Hollande bet that inaction bore a greater peril of producing a jihadist state like Afghanistan under the Taliban.

"We must stop the rebels' offensive, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands - creating a threat for Africa and even for Europe," his foreign minister Laurent Fabius told reporters to justify backing Mali's dilapidated national army.

For months, military planners in Paris had been working on discreet and limited support for an African-led effort due later this year to try and drive Islamists out of France's ex-colony.

That scenario was swiftly overtaken on Thursday as rebels captured the central town of Konna that is a gateway towards Bamako 600 km (375 miles) further south.

With Mali's army impotent, Hollande ordered the first military strikes of his career. Now France has deployed 550 troops, C-160 transport aircraft, attack helicopters and has Rafale jets on standby the question is: where does it go from here?


French troops board a transport plane in Ndjamena, Chad in this picture provided by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) on January 12, 2013. REUTERS/ECPAD/Adj. Nicolas Richard/Handout