French forces take action against Mali Islamists

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Traore called on mining companies and nongovernment organizations to turn their trucks over to Malian military, raising questions about the army’s ability.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by events in Mali, and that Washington was closely consulting with Paris. She said neither France nor Mali has asked for U.S. military assistance.

France has led a diplomatic push for international action in northern Mali but efforts to get an African-led force together, or to train the weak Malian army, have dragged.

The French quickly mobilized after the Islamists seized the city of Konna on Thursday, pushing closer to the army’s major base in central Mali.

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the capture of Konna and urged U.N. member states to assist Mali “in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups.”

Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the U.N.

The Security Council authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions. Those include the training of Mali’s military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since a military coup last year sent the nation into disarray.

The fighting Wednesday and Thursday for Konna represents the first clashes between Malian government forces and the Islamists in nearly a year, since the militants seized the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

The Islamists seized the town of Douentza four months ago after brief standoff with a local militia, but pushed no farther until clashes broke out late Wednesday in Konna, a city of 50,000 people, where fearful residents cowered inside their homes. Konna is just 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.

A soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, acknowledged that the army had retreated from Konna. He said several soldiers were killed and wounded, though he did not have precise casualty figures.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam.

In recent months, however, the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.

Turbaned fighters control major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did. And like in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his government was taking action because “in recent days, the situation unfortunately deteriorated very seriously.”

The delay by the international community in taking action allowed “the terrorist and criminal groups of northern Mali … to move toward the south with the goal of … installing a terrorist state.”

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