France battles Mali militants as hostage crisis unfolds
BAMAKO: French troops fought rebels in Mali, as security forces in neighbouring Algeria surrounded Islamist fighters who killed two people, took more than 40 foreign hostages and called for an end to France’s “crusade”.
After days of air strikes on Islamist positions in northern Mali, controlled by the rebels since April, French special forces and Malian troops battled the insurgents in the central towns of Diabaly and Konna.
But in a dramatic raising of the stakes, Islamists across the border in Algeria said they were holding 41 foreign hostages, including seven Americans, after an attack Wednesday on the In Amenas gas field.
A group calling itself “Signatories for Blood” claimed the assault in a post on the Mauritanian website Alakhbar, saying it was in reprisal for “the crusade being waged by French forces in Mali” and for Algeria’s cooperation.
Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said a Briton and an Algerian had been killed in the attack, while another six people — a Briton, a Norwegian, a Scot and three Algerians — had been wounded.
Other reports said the hostages included Japanese, Malaysian, Norwegian and Filipino nationals. Dublin confirmed the kidnapping of an Irish national while the US State Department said several of its nationals were being held.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed scepticism that the attack was in reprisal for the French action in Mali, saying it would have taken longer to plan.
“Whatever excuse is being used by terrorists and murderers, there is no excuse. This is the cold-blooded murder of people going about their business,” he said.
Jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach, the gas field is located 1,300 kilometres (810 miles) southeast of Algiers, close to the Libyan border.
The attackers had also demanded the release of 100 Islamists held in Algeria in exchange for their hostages, a worker at the gas field site told AFP.
France launched airstrikes on Islamists in Northern Mali on January 11. Algeria has opened its airspace to French fighter jets engaged in the mission.
On the ground in central Mali, French troops fought Islamist fighters in Diabaly, a town seized two days earlier by fighters led by Algerian Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
“The special forces are currently in Diabaly, in close-quarter combat with the Islamists. The Malian army is also in place,” a Malian security source said on condition of anonymity.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the western zone around Diabaly was home to “the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups”.
There were also clashes near Konna, the central town Islamists seized last week, prompting the French intervention, security sources said.
The French military said it had secured a strategic bridge on the Niger river near the town of Markala, south of Diabaly, blocking a key route to the capital Bamako. An AFP correspondent there noted about a hundred French soldiers in 15 armoured vehicles.
The International Criminal Court said it had launched a warcrimes probe Wednesday, as rights groups and military sources denounced the Islamists’ use of child soldiers and civilians as human shields.
“Different armed groups have caused havoc and human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence,” chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said. “I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes.”
Chad’s Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat told Radio France Internationale the country was sending about 2,000 men to boost African forces in Mali. Nigeria will command the UN-approved 3,300-strong multinational African intervention force and has promised 900 troops. About 2,000 men will arrive within the next 10 days, according to a report from a meeting of regional army chiefs seen by AFP.
Spain’s defence ministry announced it would allow France to use its airfields. Germany has already pledged two transport planes and Italy logistical support.
France says it will ultimately send 2,500 troops, pitted against what are thought to be around 1,300 Islamic fighters. Mali has been effectively split in two since April 2012, when Islamists took advantage of a military coup in Bamako and an offensive launched by Tuareg separatists in the north to seize half the country.
The UN and aid agencies report some 370,000 Malians have been displaced by the fighting. afp