North Africa Theater
Amid sketchy and conflicting reports of how much territory the jihadists have gained in their southern thrust and to what extent last week's French air-strikes have halted it, BBC News tells us Jan. 16 that French ground forces are now engaged in the battle for the town of Diabaly, just 220 miles north of Mali's capital, Bamako. A convoy of 50 armored vehicles left Bamako overnight for Diabaly, seemingly a joint force of French and Malian troops. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: "Today, the ground forces are being deployed. Until now, we had made sure there were a few ground forces in Bamako to keep our people safe... Now French ground forces are heading up north."
France carried out air-strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali Jan. 11, helping government forces halt a drive southward by the militants who control the country's desert north. France also evidently has introduced ground forces, with President Francois Hollande saying French troops "have brought support this afternoon to Malian units to fight against terrorist elements." He added: "This operation will last as long as is necessary." Combined Malian and French forces turned back a rebel advance, retaking the town of Konna (Mopti region, see map) that had been seized by a mixed force of the militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO, apparently with fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mali's government declared a nation-wide state of emergency as the counter-offensive was launched.
A Tunisian court on Jan. 7 unconditionally released the only suspect held in custody over the deadly attack on the US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi. Ali Harzi, was ordered freed for lack of evidence, but must remain in the greater Tunis area pending further investigations. Harzi had been detained in Turkey and deported to Tunisia, where he had been held for months. The FBI was first granted access to Harzi for questioning in December. Shortly after the FBI interviewed Harzi for three hours, the Tunisian wing of the militant group Ansar al-Sharia released pictures of the three investigating FBI agents online.
Two Egyptians were killed and two injured in an apparent attack on a Coptic church near the Libyan city of Misrata Dec. 30. "Unknown assailants targeted a church building in the town of Dafniya, in Misrata [province], causing the death of two Egyptian citizens and wounding two others," official news agency LANA reported. "The explosion happened after the mass ended and people were on their way out." There were an estimated 1.5 million Egyptians living and working in Libya before the 2011 revolution. About two-thirds left during the war but many returned in 2012.
Islamist militants occupying Timbuktu in northern Mali destroyed remaining mausoleums in the ancient city using pick-axes Dec. 23, a leader of the group said. "Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu, Allah doesn't like it," Abou Dardar, head of Ansar Dine, told the AFP. "We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area." (Al Jazeera, Dec. 23) Three days earlier, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to approve an African-led intervention force to oust the Islamist forces from Mali's north. (The Real News, Dec. 20)
The Libyan government closed the country's southern border with Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan on Sunday and declared southern Libya as a military zone. The move was in response to growing lawlessness in Libya's southern provinces of Ghadames, Ghat, Obari, al-Shati, Sebha, Murzuq and Kufra. Representatives of the southern provinces had been boycotting legislative sessions due to the government's failure to assist in curbing the violence in the region. Government officials indicated that the closure would only last until order has restored. There was indication that some of the problems in the southern provinces were due to deteriorating conditions in Mali and the expected international military response.
Mali's prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was forced to resign on state television Dec. 11 after junta troops arrested him for attempting to leave the country. President Dioncounda Traoré appeared on TV to appoint Django Cissoko, a French-educated university professor and presidential aide, as interim prime minister. Diarra's ouster was a show of force by a military that staged a coup in March, just as rebels were seizing the country's desert north. Following his arrest, Diarra was taken to a meeting with coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo, where he was accused both of failing to retake the north and of scheming to to disrupt talks now underway with the rebels.
The government of Mali is now confirmed to be holding direct talks with two of rebel groups that seized control in the country's north, in a bid to resolve the country's political crisis and head off foreign intervention. Top government officials gathered in neighboring Burkina Faso Dec. 4 for preliminary talks with delegates from the MNLA Tuareg separatist group and the radical Islamist organization Ansar Dine. But meanwhile in Washington DC, the chief of the Pentagon's Africa Command, Gen. Carter F. Ham, warned that rebel-controlled northern Mali has become a staging area for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). "As each day goes by, al-Qaeda and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali," Gen. Ham said in remarks at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There is a compelling need for the international community, led by Africans, to address that." (VOA, Dec. 4; NYT, Dec. 3)