Determined to win and win in a short time, French fighter planes began lightning strikes on Islamist strongholds in northern Mali Friday. Since then, the strikes have intensified, as have the amount of ground troops – now at 550 – that France has brought in for support.
The French specifically stepped in as radical Islamists, who had taken over northern Mali last April, began a successful expansion campaign into the central region of the country, threatening to reach Bamako, the capital.
Map showing Mali’s location in Africa (Source: CIA)
Seven other countries have joined the effort, including the U.S., who is providing communications support, and Britain, who is sending aircrafts to help transport troops from neighboring countries.
Since taking over the northern part of the country (an area greater than the size of France), the Al Qaeda-linked groups have imposed the most extreme form of Sharia (Islamic) law on the territory, amputating arms for those accused of thievery, public whippings of women for wearing perfume or makeup, flogging men for smoking cigarettes, and stoning to death individuals accused of adultery. Alcohol, music and watching sports on television have also been forbidden. The Islamists began their campaign in the region by smashing historic tombs and shrines located in Timbuktu.
Tens of thousands of Malians have fled the region, with those left behind having to deal with the horrors of everyday life under the Islamists.
“France’s goal is to lead a relentless struggle against terrorist groups,” the ministry said, “preventing any new offensive of these groups to the south of Mali,” said France’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Mali map (Source: CIA)
The Islamists rapid expansion into central Mali prompted the French to take action to prevent Al Qaeda terrorists from establishing large terrorist bases from which to launch attacks in Europe and link to other Islamist groups in Somalia, Yemen and northern Africa.
France’s goal is also to provide support to Malian government forces, who are hoping to soon be joined by troops from other African nations to take back their country.
Sunday, the Islamists acknowledged that they suffered heavy losses in fights with the country’s military and French troops, but they quickly brushed off the defeats.
“This is a holy war. The deaths are normal,” said Sanda Ould Boumama, spokesman for the al Qaeda-linked rebel group Ansar Dine, speaking to CNN by phone.
One of the Islamist commanders controlling Gao said that air strikes had destroyed a building in the town used by them as a checkpoint and that three of his men died after being crushed under the rubble.
Another Islamist commander, Oumar Ould Hamaha, further confirmed that fighter jets had hit training camps and depots used by the Islamists.
Yet he vowed, “Our jihadists are not a bunch of sheep waiting to be slaughtered inside a closed pen. Listen closely to me. Our elements are constantly on the move. What they hit is a bunch of cement. France is going to reap the worst consequences possible from this. Now no French person can feel safe anywhere in the world. Every French national is a target,” Hamaha said.
French and Malian officials say the surprise strikes have stripped the advance of the Islamists, however the strikes have not affected the northern half of the country, which represents the largest area in the world controlled by Al Qaeda and its allies.
The French have also acknowledged the Islamists are better armed than they expected. France suffered its first fatality when a 41-year-old French pilot died after his helicopter was shot down near the town of Konna.
The Islamists are composed of three separate rebel groups, all of which have links to Al Qaeda. They are armed with weapons stolen from the abandoned arsenal of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.