France's President Francois Hollande delivers a speech on the situation… (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty…)
PARIS — French ground forces intervened Friday to help the sagging Malian army as it battles advancing Islamist fighters, opening a new and unexpectedly direct front in the confrontation between the West and al-Qaeda-allied guerrillas.
On Saturday, France’s defense minister said hundreds of French troops were involved in an operation that destroyed a command center of Islamic rebels in Mali overnight. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that a French helicopter pilot died of his wounds in the operation, which involved air strikes on three rebel targets, according to the Associated Press.
French President Francois Hollande, who announced the surprise deployment, did not say how many French soldiers were on the ground or exactly what their mission is. But officials said French aircraft conducted strikes Friday, and Hollande promised that France’s participation in the fighting would “last as long as necessary” to guarantee that Mali’s government and army can maintain control of the former French colony in northwest Africa.
“At stake is the very existence of the Malian state,” he said in a televised declaration.
Hollande’s decision to intervene dramatized European and U.S. concerns over rapid military gains in recent days by the half-dozen Islamist and Tuareg militias that have controlled the northern two-thirds of the country for more than seven months. Ruling more than 250,000 square miles, they have scattered Malian soldiers southward, imposed strict Muslim laws on the civilian population and created a vast new haven for North African terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The slide into political chaos in northern Mali concerns the West for several reasons, including the possible spillover of militancy and weapons to neighboring nations and the relative ease with which West Africa-based militants might attack Europe.
Still, the United States has been leery of rapid international intervention, preferring a slower approach that coordinates military help with economic and political support.
France’s decision to send ground troops, even if they are restricted to small groups of specialized forces, marks a departure from Western powers’ efforts in recent years to avoid direct involvement on the ground in foreign conflicts, after scarring experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The West’s heavy participation in the 2011 campaign to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, for instance, was limited to air power.
The United States has joined with France and other European governments in seeking to organize an African military intervention force to restore Malian government authority. But a senior French security official acknowledged recently that the African force is nowhere near to being ready, meaning that France had to intervene on its own if it wanted to respond to the immediate crisis.
“The terrorists have regrouped in recent days along the line that artificially separates Mali’s north and south,” Hollande said in an earlier talk Friday to assembled French diplomats. “They have even advanced. And they are seeking to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali. France, as is the case with its African partners and all the international community, cannot accept this.”
Hollande, who took office in May, had consistently ruled out the dispatch of French ground forces in Africa, insisting that the days of France operating as an African police force are over. But an appeal Thursday from Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, and the swift deterioration of the military situation apparently changed his mind.
Mali has not asked for the same kind of emergency help from the United States, a U.S. spokeswoman said Friday. It remained unclear whether the unfolding events would hasten any U.S. role in the country. “The Malian government’s need is urgent right now, which is why France is responding,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Hollande indicated that France’s role as a power in Africa that can be relied on seemed to be at stake in Mali. “The terrorists must know that France will always be there to support a population that lives in democracy,” he declared.
France has fighter aircraft, transport planes and helicopter gunships stationed in several African countries near Mali, making air support for the Malian army relatively easy to organize. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Friday that some of the aircraft had carried out strikes against the rebels, and French news reports quoted Malian soldiers as saying they were transported to northern Mali in aircraft made available by “foreign friends.”