Mali Islamist rebels advance, Nato may join Africa operations

Mali Islamist rebels advance, Nato may join Africa operations

Mali Islamist rebels’ ‘dangerous’ incursion this week towards government-held territories in central Mali might just persuade Nato to make up its mind, and join the 3300 African troops planned for the operation in the north, observers say.

Earlier this week, Mali’s defence ministry said on TV and radio that the army had managed to push back heavily armed Islamists who were advancing southward near the town of Mopti, located some 450 km north-east of the capital city Bamako. Last night, heavy clashes between the army and Islamists took place in Konna, a town located 120 km south of Sévaré, where the army has a military base, according to reports.

The government has ordered schools in the capital city Bamako and Kati to close down until further notice.

“The situation is serious and a lot is at stake here, and the way I see it Nato will have no option but to come on board to help Africa out,” an African diplomat who has recently returned from Mali told Moon of the South in the Senegalese capital city Dakar.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said Mali Islamists were more than determined to conquer the whole country and turn it into an Islamic state. “The chairman is right, we need Nato and we need them desperately,” he said, referring to African Union chair and Benin President Boni Yayi’s call this week on Nato to help Africa ‘directly’ to flush out rebel Islamists of Ansar-Dine (defenders of religion), MUJAO and Al-Qaeda in Maghreb (AQMI).

Yayi, who was visiting Canada, held a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “In reality, NATO should join with our African forces – and I think our African forces will lead the way – as has been done in Afghanistan and in other places,” he was quoted by Globe and Mail as saying.

But Harper, who said he was very concerned about the Mali situation, outrightly rejected Yayi’s call, stating that Canada – a Nato member state – will not participate ‘directly’ in Mali’s military operations. However, reports from Ottawa suggest that Canada might help indirectly, in providing military trainers to join the 400-something personnel earmarked to train a depleted and demotivated Mali army.

Mali is set to contribute about 6000 troops to join the 3300 African troops. But the US has voiced concerns about the state of preparedness of the planned force, arguing that they were too small and ill-prepared to fight the well-trained and armed Islamists in that vast desert.

The African diplomat said: “Too much time has been wasted on talking, twisting and turning about this issue, and in the meantime Islamists are gaining strength and support and growing in confidence every day, thinking that they can take on the whole world. The time to act is now, before it’s too late,” the diplomat, who was getting ready to fly to Addis-Ababa at the AU headquarters for consultations on the issue, said.

“I think allowing Al-Qaeda to effectively have a homeland, to have an absolutely secure base from which they can plan, train, prepare and import foreign fighters is not a good idea,” former Canadian ambassador to the UN and UN special envoy to Niger Robert Fowler told Globe and Mail.

Fowler, who was kidnapped by Islamist extremists in the Sahel region in December 2008 and released in April 2009, said African forces will need Western military capabilities.

*Photo by Romaric Ollo Hien/afp.com. A heavily armed Islamist rebel of Ansar-Dine, near Timbuktu in northern Mali.

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