France's just launched military intervention in Mali has earned the old colonial power praise from those fearing Islamist extremists. The fight, however, has only just begun.
BAMAKO – They all came out at once, in the early afternoon of Sunday, in the center of Mali’s capital, Bamako – the little French flags, being sold by street vendors.
Down the road, a truck drives by with a huge blue-white-red banner flying in the wind, its loud speakers playing the 19th century French Sambre and Meuse Regiment military anthem full blast.
In this African capital, which is not known for its love of all-things French, these are unexpected sights and sounds. Today, though, is all about the French intervention.
“France saved us from the Islamists, we will never forget this,” says Kassoum Tapo. He is the representative of Mopti, the loyalist city closest to the area controlled by the rebels in northern Mali, which by all acounts was saved from an impending rebel invasion thanks to the French military intervention.
Since then, the French army has been covering more and more ground, which gives Bamako hope that its national military forces will be able to recapture the north. “We have to be careful, we need to keep the momentum going at all cost, and then the Malian army needs to take over, otherwise it will be impossible to restart,” says a senior French official.
In the northern half of Mali, controlled by the Islamic armed groups, the first effects of the intervention are starting to appear. People are worried about the bombs, and are fleeing Timbuktu and the surrounding towns. In some cities, the rebels are purposely setting camp near hospitals or places filled with civilians.
Doctors Without Borders already has issued a statement saying that there were “reports of numerous deaths and injuries from armed conflict in Konna, including civilians,” according to doctor Mego Terzian, the NGO's emergency response manager in Mali.
Retaliation and ethnic violence
More than the bombs, people are worried about retaliations after nine months of rule by armed groups that pillaged the towns and multiplied violent acts in northern Mali. In Timbuktu, where AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) fighters and their Ansar Dine allies retreated after their failed offensive on the city of Sevare, the Malian army has its base camp -- and civilians have started their exodus.
“Light-skinned people, whether they are (nomadic ethnic group) Tuareg or Arab, are fleeing the city to avoid retaliations if the Islamic groups are defeated, for fear of being taken for Islamists,” an anonymous source told us.
“Ethnic violence is the greatest risk in this area, we were aware of that. This region harbors so much hatred that ethnic groups may be targeted collectively. On Sunday, in Sevare, members of the Peul ethnic group were assaulted in their homes, and even in mosques, by soldiers who accused them of helping the Islamic groups just because these organizations recruit many Peuls,” said Mali specialist, Charles Grémont. Similar incidents are being observed all around Mali, including small towns.
The French troops have a huge task ahead, considering how strong the Islamist coalition is. Before the intervention, it was not clear whether the leader of the local Tuareg outfit Ansar Dine, Iyad Ghali was linked with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but different sources now certify that this Tuareg chief was part of the offensive to take Sevare. Hundreds of his men have joined the ranks of the Al Qaeda fighters.
In all of this, where are the MNLA Tuareg rebels who had claimed northern Mali as an independent state before being overwhelmed by the Islamists? Those who hadn’t joined Ansar Dine, had quickly crossed the Mauritanian border just before the French air strikes began.