France says military intervention in Mali is likely to last only weeks, as Mali rebel leaders threaten to 'strike at the heart' of France by attacking its territories and interests. Colin Randall reports
France says Mali victory 'will be swift'
France strongly defended its military intervention in northern Mali yesterday, dismissing any suggestion of a long-term commitment comparable to the West's operation in Afghanistan launched in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Supporters of the socialist president, Francois Hollande, hailed the mission as proof of his capacity to act decisively despite repeated criticism that his first year in office has been marked by dithering.
Mr Hollande's certainty that the use of force had become unavoidable was underpinned by yesterday's comments from his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.
Mr Fabius told French radio that recent advances by Islamist rebels had threatened to reach the capital, Bamako, with what could have been "appalling consequences" for its residents, including 6,000 French nationals among a population of two million.
But in an effort to reassure public opinion, which broadly welcomed France's final withdrawal of its last combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of last year, Mr Fabius rejected any parallel with French participation in the United States-led operation in Afghanistan.
He said French strikes in Mali had succeeded in halting the insurgents' progress towards the south of the country but that the operation was designed to last only for a few weeks. "Later on, we can come as backup but we have no intention of staying forever," he said.
No one in France will have been shocked by France's entry into the conflict.
Mr Hollande had called for action by the international community to combat the northern rebellion, which had been described as a "messy" insurgency involving Tuareg fighters from the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), Ansar Dine (meaning defenders of the faith) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mojwa), a breakaway group from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim). There had been fierce rivalry between the different groups and the MNLA is reportedly offering to aid the French attack.
In December, the United Nations Security Council approved military action against the militants. The aim is to restore democracy 10 months after the Tuareg rebels drove Amadou Toumani Toure from power as president a month before elections were due.
So it was always a matter of when, not whether, military action would begin. The only surprise was that events forced France to lead the way without waiting for a multi-nation West African force to translate UN and regional words into action.
Concern about developments in Mali has grown rapidly since the coup, with reports of amputations and floggings carried out under a strict interpretation of Sharia law and the destruction of shrines in Timbuktu. France has been especially vocal in warning of a terrorist threat to Europe from groups basing themselves in Mali.
The fate of eight other French hostages held by the Aqim militants in Mali and neighbouring countries weighs heavily on the president's mind. Mr Hollande knows that their prospects for survival may have been damaged by the military action but it is equally clear that there was already a grave risk that their captors would kill them in any case.
What happens to French citizens held captive could affect public opinion, already shocked by the failure of a hostage rescue operation in Somalia.
Yesterday, the French Embassy in Bamako sent an email ordering the immediate evacuation of all French nationals living in the town of Segou. Paris is also concerned by the threat from rebel leaders to "strike at the heart" of France by carrying out attacks on French territory and interests, although this was considered a risk even before the military action began.
Another factor that makes intervention in Mali a high-risk strategy for Mr Hollande is the risk of military casualties. A helicopter pilot was killed in the early clashes and an Elysee official has been quoted as saying the French armed forces had not expected the rebels to be as well trained and equipped as they appeared to be.
If that raises question marks about French intelligence and preparedness, the response so far to Mr Hollande's first taste of conflict is overwhelmingly positive.
Western allies have supported his action. British endorsement has already stretched to the provision of transporter aircraft, the US government is offering drones and the European Union is bringing forward a troop training programme.
To these and other promises of western assistance must be added the likelihood of differing levels of commitment from West African nations alarmed by the Islamists' growing strength in Mali. In France, most of Mr Hollande's domestic political opponents have seen the need for national unity.
After a torrid early spell as president, Mr Hollande - a man who had never known government office before defeating Nicolas Sarkozy in the last May's presidential elections - suddenly appears strong and statesmanlike. The goodwill he has fostered in Algeria, as a leader intent on healing old wounds dating from the war of independence, was repaid when the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, agreed that French warplanes could fly over his country's territory on their way to confront the rebels in northern Mali.
Mr Hollande also took care to reassure France's former African colonies that his intentions do not extend to a return to the controversial years of Francafrique, a foreign policy that linked the country's interests in the continent.
He would naturally deny that political considerations influence decisions he has felt obliged to take. But he may be hoping that if his Mali strategy works, he will reverse the Sarkozy theory that while the French electorate blames heads of state for foreign failures, it gives no credit for successes.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press