French officials, acting on a call for help from Mali’s president, say they felt compelled to go in first after Islamist extremists seized the town of Konna along a narrow belt separating north and south Mali, menacing the feeble central government in Bamako. French officials fear the region, if left to fester, could become a launching pad for terrorism against Europe.
Valentina Soria, a security analyst with London-based IHS Jane's, said she believes West Africans have the political will to deploy a force in Mali, but questioned how effective it would be. She said with every day that passes the possibility of an ECOWAS force leading in Mali becomes less feasible — with France continuing to ramp up its presence and Chad forces headed in.
Senegal ‘‘has not come out as assertively,’’ Soria said. Some political opposition leaders insist Senegal cannot send troops to war without the authorization of parliament, even though President Macky Sall has promised 500 troops; none has yet been deployed. The parliament in Mali’s eastern neighbor Niger, which has been hit by hostage-takings by jihadists, took up a debate on that deployment this week. It, too, has pledged 500 soldiers.
For a continent with relatively little experience in projecting power abroad, a quick African deployment was hardly certain. Even France, a former colonial ruler in Africa and one of Europe’s top military powers, has needed some logistical help from European allies to get troops into Mali.
Germany was deploying two C-160 military transport planes that will remain on standby in Senegal starting Sunday, awaiting orders to eventually ferry African troops into Mali.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb operates not just in Mali, but also in a corridor along much of the northern Sahel. This 7,000-kilometer (4,300-mile) long ribbon of land runs across the widest part of Africa, and includes sections of Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad.
Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, said Wednesday in Washington that the rebellion in Mali ‘‘constitutes not just a threat against a sovereign state, but potentially a transnational threat that could move into Niger, into Burkina Faso, into Mauritania, into Senegal, as well as Algeria and other places ... So it is important. We cannot in fact take it lightly.’’
That same day, militants said to be linked to Mali’s rebels took scores of people hostage — many of them Westerners — at a natural gas plant in remote eastern Algeria, launching deadly clashes and a standoff with Algerian forces that remained unresolved late Friday.
Michelle Faul in Johannesburg, South Africa; Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea; Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana; Dany Padire in N'Djamena, Chad; Sadibou Marone in Dakar, Senegal; Juergen Baetz in Berlin; Greg Keller and Angela Charlton in Paris; and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.