Mali conflict: French 'fighting Islamists in Diabaly'

The BBC's Andrew Harding says French troops have been welcomed by people in the capital

French troops have been fighting Mali's Islamist rebels in street battles in the town of Diabaly, Malian and French sources say.

In the first major ground operation in the conflict, French special forces were fighting alongside Malian troops.

Diabaly, 350km (220 miles) north of the capital Bamako, was captured by the rebels on Monday.

France intervened in Mali last Friday to try to halt the Islamists' push southwards towards the capital.

In a separate development, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court opened a war crimes investigation, focusing on acts committed since January 2012 in some northern regions of the country.

"At each stage during the conflict, different armed groups have caused havoc and human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence," Fatou Bensouda said.

French special forces in Mali

  • 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment, the only cavalry unit in the Foreign Legion
  • Based in Orange, in France's southeastern Vaucluse department, since 1967
  • Formed in 1921 in Tunisia, partly from White Russian legionnaires
  • Expert in desert warfare, saw action in Indochina, Algeria and First Gulf War

"I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes."

'Determined adversary'

Islamists entered Diabaly on Monday, taking the town from Malian forces. French war planes have since attacked the rebel positions.

French army chief Edouard Guillaud said on Wednesday that ground operations had begun.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian added: "Today, the ground forces are being deployed. Until now, we had made sure there were a few ground forces in Bamako to keep our people safe... Now French ground forces are heading up north."

A convoy of 50 armoured vehicles left Bamako overnight.

French media review

As French ground troops multiply in Mali, the country's papers are asking how France can avoid getting bogged down.

"We know how military interventions start off," Alain Frachon writes in the centre-left Le Monde. "We never know how they end." He warns against the eventual "temptation to take in hand a failed or failing state in order to try to rebuild it".

"In this unfamiliar desert, French helicopters and Islamist pick-up trucks are fighting a typical 21st Century war," Christophe Barbier writes in the centre-right L'Express. He recalls the words of Rene Caillie, the French explorer, returning from Timbuktu in 1828: "My adventures are a dream, are they not?" Barbier concludes: "Let's hope those of Francois Hollande do not turn into a nightmare."

France, writes Nicolas Demorand in the centre-left Liberation, has stopped Mali becoming a "rogue state". That is the most it can achieve, he argues, and it "must now specify - if it knows at all - when, how, and to whom the heavy burden of controlling the situation will fall in its place".

The BBC's Christian Fraser in Paris says these are legionnaires from the southern French town of Orange - a special forces unit expert in desert warfare.

Residents of Niono, 70km south of Diabaly, say the French arrived overnight.

A Malian security source told AFP news agency that French special forces were fighting "hand-to-hand" with Islamists alongside Malian forces in Diabaly.

The French may face a difficult situation in the town.

One eyewitness, Ibrahim Komnotogo, told AP news agency: "The jihadists have split up. They don't move around in big groups. They are out in the streets, in fours and fives and sixes, and they are living inside the most inhabited neighbourhoods."

Adm Guillaud said France would do all it could to ensure civilians were not targeted. "When in doubt, we will not fire," he said.

Mr Le Drian has admitted that Malian forces around Diabaly have been struggling to combat the well-armed rebels.

He also said the central town of Konna had not been recaptured by government forces as had earlier been reported.

French President Francois Hollande: "Our mission is to secure Mali's territorial integrity"

Our correspondent says the French or their allies in the Malian army need to take control of both Konna and Diabaly if their campaign is to advance.

French President Francois Hollande said France had been right to intervene.

"If the choice had not been made, it would no longer have been a question of 'when', because it would have been too late," he told journalists.

"Mali would have been conquered completely and the terrorists would be in a strong position today, not simply to submit the people of Mali to a regime they do not want, but equally to apply pressure to the countries of West Africa as a whole."

Mr Hollande later said that France's parliament would hold a vote on the operation if it had to be extended beyond four months.

Start Quote

Unless the areas bombed are subsequently occupied on the ground, the opponents of the French and the Malian government who are not killed could regroup”

End Quote

France has some 800 troops on the ground in Mali and defence sources said their numbers were expected to increase to 2,500.

However, France has been pushing hard for the deployment of a West African regional force, and regional military commanders have agreed to send troops under a UN Security Council resolution.

A company of 190 Nigerians will be the first to arrive.

Nigeria will lead the force, with 900 troops out of 3,300. Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged to take part.

But late on Wednesday, Chad's foreign minister said his government would send about 2,000 troops to Mali.

The UK has provided transport planes, and on Wednesday Germany gave two Transall transport planes as logistical support.

Tuareg offer

Foreign forces in Mali

  • Some 800 French troops in Mali, 900 troops involved elsewhere in Africa
  • French Mirage and Rafale jets, Gazelle helicopters
  • Chad to send 2,000 troops
  • Nigeria to send 900 troops; Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo expected to send 500 each, and Benin 300
  • Ghana, Guinea and Chad also to send troops
  • UK providing two C17 cargo planes for French effort
  • Belgium and Denmark also sending transport planes
  • US to provide communications help

In March and April last year, Islamist and secular Tuareg rebels overran the main population centres in northern Mali. Soon the Islamists, some with links to al-Qaeda, took control and imposed a hardline form of Sharia.

While a West African force was being planned with the aim of bringing the north back under the control of the Malian government, the rebels began moving further south.

It was the rebel capture of Konna last Thursday that prompted France's military intervention.

French air strikes have since blocked the rebels, who have moved back to an area between Douentza and Gao.

The battle for Mali
Mali in the 1930s The landlocked area of West Africa was the core of ancient empires going back to the 4th Century. The French colonised Mali, then known as French Sudan, at the end of the 19th Century, while Islamic religious wars created theocratic states in the region.
Malian soldiers Mali gained independence in 1960 but endured droughts, rebellions and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. In the early 1990s, the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights.
Rebels The insurgency gathered momentum in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. Tuareg nationalists, alongside Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, seized control of the north in 2012 after a military coup by soldiers frustrated by government efforts against the rebels.
Refugee at UNHCR Mangaize refugee camp in Niger The fighting in the north and the establishment of a harsh form of Islamic law has forced thousands to flee their homes - some estimates say more than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries.
French fighter jet In January 2013, the Islamists captured the central city of Konna. France, responding to appeals for help from the Mali president, has sent about 550 troops to the Mopti and to Bamako, which is home to about 6,000 French nationals. French jets have also launched air strikes.

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