Hostage crisis after Algerian gasfield raid
AL-QAEDA-linked fighters have called for an end to France's ''crusade'' in Mali, killing two people and taking more than 40 foreign hostages at a gasfield in neighbouring Algeria in response to the French military action.
The attack on the In Amenas gasfield has raised fear the conflict could spread across the Sahel and Sahara regions of West Africa. On Wednesday, Chad said it would send 2000 soldiers to fight in Mali.
After days of French air strikes on Islamist positions in northern Mali, controlled by the rebels since April, French and Malian ground forces battled the insurgents in the central towns of Diabaly and Konna.
But it is the gasfield assault that has dramatically raised the stakes. Islamists said they were holding 41 foreign hostages, including French, British, Japanese and American citizens, after their attack on the gasfield in the east of the country. A group calling itself ''Signatories for Blood'' claimed the action in a post to the Mauritanian website al-Akhbar.
The attack was in reprisal for ''the crusade being waged by French forces in Mali'' and for Algeria's co-operation, it said, calling for the operation to end.
The attackers also demanded the release of 100 Islamists held in Algeria in exchange for their hostages, a worker at the gasfield site told AFP.
The attack came less than a week after France launched its air strikes on Islamists in northern Mali on January 11 and just days after Algeria opened its airspace to French fighter jets engaged in the mission.
On the ground in central Mali, French troops engaged Islamist fighters in Diabaly, a town seized two days earlier by fighters led by Algerian Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
''The special forces are currently in Diabaly, in close-quarter combat with the Islamists. The Malian army is also in place,'' a Malian security source said on condition of anonymity.
The French military said it had secured a strategic bridge on the Niger river near the town of Markala, south of Diabaly, blocking a key route to Bamako.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the western zone around Diabaly was home to ''the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups. It's under way there but it's difficult.''
Speaking in Rome, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said US assistance to France in Mali was being delayed because of questions raised by Obama administration lawyers.
''Every time I turn around I face a group of lawyers,'' Mr Panetta said.
The administration lawyers want ''to be sure they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis to do what we are being requested to do'' in aiding the French, he said.
On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US could not directly aid Mali's current government, which was installed through a coup led by a military officer who had received Pentagon training.
She said there were no restrictions on helping allies such as France and other African nations, which are preparing to send forces to Mali under United Nations authorisation. The US is preparing to send military trainers and supplies to assist those soldiers before they deploy to Mali, she said.
The Chad announcement on Wednesday will be a significant boost to the African forces gathering there.
Nigeria will command the UN-approved 3300-strong multinational African intervention force and has promised 900 troops. Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo, Senegal, Guinea and Ghana have also promised troops. About 2000 men will arrive within the next 10 days, according to a report from a meeting of regional army chiefs seen by AFP.
The UN and aid agencies say about 370,000 Malians have been displaced by the fighting.