Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For French Troops Nearing Rebel Ground, Mali Fight Is No Ordinary Mission

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For French Troops Nearing Rebel Ground, Mali Fight Is No Ordinary Mission

Article excerpt

French Army columns, scores of vehicles, and hundreds of soldiers rumbled north into central Mali today, down dirt roads and among the grass and acacia trees, heading toward the rebel's main stronghold.

I dont know where well end up, says a soldier named Flavien, leaning against the barrel of the tank he drives during a pause on the road. If tomorrow Im told that Timbuktu must be taken by force of arms, Ill do it.

Its unclear even to most men in the column where they are ultimately bound. What is clear is that days after reversing an offensive by Islamist militants, large contingents of French troops are now pushing toward Islamist redoubts in Malis north.

The French advance appears to be part of wider efforts to bring pressure on the militants. Soldiers from several West African countries have arrived in Mali in recent days, with more expected soon, while yesterday French planes struck Islamist positions near the northern city of Gao.

Taking back the north could prove arduous. While air-strikes and troop advances could push Islamist fighters from major cities, many have years of experience eluding capture in the northern deserts and are plugged into the regions criminal networks.

How the crisis began

Malis crisis began a year ago when Islamists hijacked a tribal revolt by Tuareg, a large ethnic group, and seized much of the north country.

After months of stalemate, French troops rushed here two weeks ago. The move came after a succession of lightning territorial victories by Islamist fighters who were pushing south and that put the capital, Bamako, at risk, and prompted a distress call from Malian President Dioncound Traor, French officials say.

Plans drawn up last year for foreign intervention in Mali had originally given ground fighting roles mainly to African troops; France says it still hopes to hand off to regional powers as soon as possible.

But so far, the urgency of the fight has seen France take a leading combat role. French planes have pummeled Islamists with air- strikes, and French troops were instrumental in pushing back Islamists from the central towns of Konna and Diabaly.

In terms of aspiration

Last night several hundred French soldiers rolled in convoys into Niono, a regional center in the flat country of canals and rice patties south of Diabaly, as locals from the town turned out to welcome them.

I wish I could show my son this! said medical student Yacouba Ciss, as the line of troop, trucks, and armored cars streamed down Nionos main avenue, headlines blazing between lines of tall trees known as balanzan in the local Bambara tongue. The convoy next turns onto a parade ground.

In fact, Mr. Ciss is neither yet married nor a father. But hes talking in terms of aspirations. For him, French military might hold his best hope for a better future. Crisis has forced many foreign aid donors from Mali, narrowing his chances of finding a backer for the chain of neighborhood pharmacies he dreams of opening. …

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