PARIS: Ousting Islamist insurgents from Mali's desert north may prove more difficult for France's forces than their weekend success in reversing the rebels' advances in the former French colony.
A 550-strong force of French air and ground forces carried out attacks on Friday that pushed the rebels out of Kona, a town about 700 kilometres north of the capital, Bamako, hours after the French President, Francois Hollande, announced France would support Mali's battle to win back two-thirds of its territory. The insurgents had taken Kona last week.
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Mali rebels gain ground
Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali.
French troops may struggle to restore control over the whole country. Mali's army has been beaten and fighters from Islamist groups including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda's north African unit, along with Tuareg separatists, are spread across an area the size of France.
''It will be very difficult and complicated, given the terrain,'' said David Zounmenou, a researcher in the African conflict prevention program at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. ''It's not going to be quick but it is certainly going to be helpful in restoring Mali's territorial integrity.''
Malian soldiers overthrew the government in March, saying they were not adequately equipped or trained to take on the Islamists, who took advantage of the ensuing chaos to seize the country's north. Strengthened by arms flowing into Mali from the 2011 war in Libya, the militants have prompted concerns over regional instability in countries as far apart as Nigeria and Algeria.
The Economic Community of West African States will meet on Wednesday to discuss sending about 2000 ECOWAS soldiers to Mali, a plan backed in a United Nations Security Council resolution last month, to restore state control to the north. The deployment was brought forward after being planned for September.
The US has offered to give intelligence and logistical support and Britain has provided two Boeing C-17 military cargo aircraft to help transport troops.
''The objective is for Mali to become whole and recover its sovereignty,'' the French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on the Europe 1 radio station. ''There was a spectacular acceleration since Wednesday [and without French intervention] … Bamako would have fallen. We had to act very quickly.''
A campaign to drive ''hardcore Islamists'' from key cities may not take too long ''but to eradicate their threat once and for all, it will probably take longer,'' said Samir Gadio, an emerging-markets strategist at Standard Bank Group in London. ''The risk, however, is that they regroup in the desert and continue to operate in small groups, making this desert zone relatively volatile in coming years.''
France's military operation has already drawn internal criticism. The former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin said ''none of the conditions of success exist'' in Mali.
''We're fighting blindly, due to a lack of war aims,'' Mr de Villepin said in an opinion piece in Le Journal du Dimanche. ''Stopping the progress of the Islamists, reconquering the north, eradicating the bases of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb are different wars.''