World Review | Al-Qaeda hunted in Mali and Algeria

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Al-Qaeda hunted in Mali and Algeria

Al-Qaeda hunted in Mali and Algeria
French troops unload more military equipment in Mali (photo:dpa)

MILITARY intervention by France was the only way to avoid Mali’s capital, Bamako, falling into the hands of the three fundamentalist Islamic radical militias occupying nothern Mali.

The French used Mirage and Rafale jets and combat helicopters to attack the fundamentalist organisations of AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and Mujao (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa).

Operation Serval, launched on January 12, 2013, by the French, had immediate success in driving the militants from major towns Mali.

By January 17 the French had increased troop numbers in their former colony, Mali, to 1,400 and plan to increase the task force to 2,500.

They are waiting to be joined by 3,300 troops from countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which includes Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo and Senegal, among its 15 members.

French President Francois Hollande said the reasons for intervention were to stop terrorist aggression, to save Bamako falling into Islamist hands and to help Mali preserve its territorial integrity where 250,000 Mali people have fled their homes to avoid the fighting.

Pressure and urgency for the United Nations Security Council to officially mandate an international military force could have encouraged the Islamist radical groups to move their forces south more quickly before troops were on the ground.

This may have been sufficient reason for the French to act decisively. But any such attack on Mali was impossible without permission from the Algerians to allow French military flights to use Algerian airspace.

Algeria had been against any military intervention in Mali following the coup in March 2012.

Algeria reviewed its non-intervention position after its interests were threatened.

The inter-African force from ECOWAS countries reinforcing the Mali and French troops may be insufficient in the long-term to tackle up to 14,000 militants in the north which includes 5,000-6,000 highly-trained and well-equipped fighters.

These are committed and fanatical warriors funding their operations through a network of organised crime including drug trafficking, kidnapping and human trafficking.

The fundamentalist militias are withdrawing to the mountains around the towns they have left and in a country they know well. They can return to start a guerrilla war whenever the time is right.

But the situation in Mali has already spilled into Algeria in an apparent retaliatory or opportunist attack on January 16 which has raised the international stakes.

A splinter group of some 30 heavily armed militants, reportedly led by veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which broke away from AQIM, mounted a dawn raid on a natural gas plant at In Amenas, Algeria, close to the central eastern border with Libya.

It seized more than 800 workers, holding them hostage and threatening to blow up the entire installation.

The field is operated jointly by BP and Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s state-owned oil company, Sonatrach, and produces 10 per cent of Algeria’s gas exports.

Other reports claimed the leader of the hostage-takers was a veteran fighter from Niger, named as Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri.

The kidnappers initially claimed that the attack was in retaliation for French military intervention in neighbouring Mali.

It was subsequently reported that they were demanding the release of two terrorists held in the United States.

The hostages included 685 Algerian workers and 132 foreigners, including Americans, Europeans and Japanese.

A rescue mission was carried out by Algerian forces against the terrorists, who were armed with a huge arsenal of missiles, rocket launchers, machine guns, grenades and assault rifles.

Thirty-two terrorists and 23 hostages were killed in the rescue mission and 107 of the 132 foreigners, were freed.

Ninety-seven per cent of Algeria’s exports come from oil and gas.

Indecision by European and US governments on how to tackle the Mali problem when it emerged in mid-2012, has led to the number of fundamentalists growing from a few hundred militants in northern Mali to the thousands of today.

Repeated statements about non-intervention convinced the terrorists that they would have a free hand in the region and encouraged other militants to join them.

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