Mali Islamists seize town while French government braces for terror attacks
Despite upbeat reports over the weekend of progress by French forces in beating back the Islamists in the northern region of Mali, the jihadists scored a victory by taking a town in central Mali.
The French Defense Ministry said on Monday that a town in central Mali had fallen to Islamist insurgents from the north, hours after Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country's dramatic intervention there had succeeded in blocking a rebel advance that could have had "appalling consequences."
At the same time, an Islamist leader in Mali said France had "opened the gates of hell" for all its citizens by intervening, reinforcing concerns that the far-flung military operation in Africa could inspire vengeance in mainland France.
French forces, Mr. Fabius said in a radio interview late Sunday, were now "taking care" of rear bases used by Islamists who took control of much of the north of the country last year after a military coup in the capital, Bamako. The duration of the French operation was "a question of weeks," Mr. Fabius said, unlike the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
But within hours, reports began to emerge of a rebel counterattack in the small town of Diabaly, north of Ségou on the approaches to the capital - the first indication that the insurgents had regrouped after a wave of French airstrikes. The fighting in the town pitted government forces against rebels seeking to press southward under heavy fire from the air.
Meanwhile, the al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the French issued some blood curdling warnings:
Oumar Ould Hamaha, an insurgent leader, said the French intervention had "opened the gates of hell for all the French."
He taunted French forces to launch a ground offensive, saying French warplanes had bombed from high altitude. "Let them come down onto the ground, if they are men," he said. "We will greet them with open arms."
France, he told Europe 1 radio, "has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia. And that is only the beginning." On Sunday evening, French jets attacked the northern town of Gao, an insurgent stronghold.
The terrorists probably can't strike in France, but there are thousands of French citizens in Mali who may be exposed to attacks. There is very little protection the French forces can offer them, which is why many are fleeing the country.
The French government seems a little optimistic that the intervention will last only "weeks." The Mali army doesn't seem capable of beating back the Islamists which will cause a problem when France feels it necessary to depart.