Following a hostage crisis at an Algerian gas plant that involved Islamist militants linked to Al-Qaeda British Prime Minister David Cameron signed a security partnership with Algeria which he visited last Wednesday. The treaty is intended to increase cooperation on a variety of issues such as border and aviation security as well as trade and, most importantly in light of the recent attack, counter-terrorism. As European heads of government have expressed their heightened concern over the terrorist threat to Europe from the Sahel zone over the last few weeks, Cameron confirmed his support of the French military intervention in Mali. British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond rejected accusations of ‘mission creep’ following the UK government’s announcement of its decision to dispatch 40 military advisers to Mali and 200 British soldiers to neighbouring African countries to help train the Malian army. He stressed that British troops would not assume a combat role and that they would thus not risk being drawn into an Afghanistan-style quagmire.
This week French military forces who commenced a military intervention in Mali three weeks made significant advances on the ground. After capturing the Northern cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal over the past few days, French jets have started attacking several targets in the Malian desert that serve as hideouts to militants and rebels fleeing the cities in face of the French advance. During a visit to Timbuktu on Saturday where he received a warm welcome, French President Hollande pledged to help reconstruct Mali while stressing that the French presence in Mali would be sustained for ‘as long as needed’ to restore government control.
French forces are supposed to gradually hand over control to African troops whose deployment has, however, been severely hampered by shortages in equipment and funding. US Vice President Joe Biden stated his support of plans for an African-led force and eventual UN operation in Mali in Paris yesterday. The EU plans to release around 250m Euros ($342m) of development aid it froze after a coup in Mali in March last year, which is badly needed in light of a food crisis across the Sahel and more than 350.000 people displaced due to the fighting.
On the political front within Mali, the Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly has recently made the holding of elections conditional on the complete re-conquest of the rebel-controlled North by Malian and French troops and the disarming of the rebels. There have also been reports that certain secular rebel groups, notably the Tuareg National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) have shown themselves open to engaging in negotiations with the government. MNLA rebels claimed to have captured two Islamist insurgents fleeing French airstrikes toward the Algerian border yesterday making good on their promise to help the French hunt down Islamists.Yesterday one of the leaders of the rebel group Ansar al-Dine that controlled Timbuktu until last week, Mohamed Moussa Ag Mouhamed, was captured near the Algerian border and today Malian forces arrested eight suspected Al Qaeda fighters in the Northern part of the country.
For an overview of Mali’s armed groups click here.
For background information on the rise of militant Islamists in the Sahel click here.
On another note there have been complaints by international media organisations such as Reporters Without Borders regarding the restricted press situation in Mali allegedly preventing the international press from covering events taking place at the forefront of hostilities. For more information click here.
Yesterday a suicide bomber attacked a government-backed militia in Iraq killing at least 22 people in what was the seventh suicide attack in Iraq in a month. Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attack so far, it is most likely another instance of sectarian violence. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has been facing mass protests by the Sunni Muslim minority fearing marginalisation and varying levels of sectarian violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Today a second suicide attack targeted an army checkpoint north of Baghdad killing at least three people with no insurgent group having assumed responsibility so far.
by ICSR research intern Hannah Ellermann