France fights almost solo in Mali

2013-01-14 20:41
British military personnel fix a French army medical armoured personnel carrier inside a RAF C17 transport plane prior to take off at army base in Evreux, 90km north of Paris. (Michel Euler, AP)

British military personnel fix a French army medical armoured personnel carrier inside a RAF C17 transport plane prior to take off at army base in Evreux, 90km north of Paris. (Michel Euler, AP)

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Brussels - France has won heaps of praise for its Mali offensive yet been left almost solo on the frontline as European Union partners instead look to join a lower-profile EU mission to train the Malian army.

The London Times on Monday dubbed France's decision to battle Islamist rebels "A Just Cause", while European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso lauded the "courageous action of French troops" and EU president Herman Van Rompuy weighed in saying: "It is indeed urgent to stop them."

Unlike military intervention in Libya in 2011, waged jointly in a first phase by Britain and France, then by a Nato-led coalition of the willing, France went into action Friday with no apparent help from its friends.

"Only one and half countries are engaged, France and Britain," said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank. "The rest of Europe seems very reluctant.

"Not many European nations saw the same strategic urgency as France."

Various officials said France took the decision to go it alone.

It was more "efficient" to kick off the campaign solo while in a next stage requesting logistical back-up, notably from Britain, said military sources in Paris.

Nato spokesperson Oana Lungescu dubbed the Mali offensive an operation "decided by the French government" and a well-informed EU diplomat concurred, saying: "So far that's what France has wanted and what fits with what everyone else thinks they can do to add value."

But analysts also say time was too short for France to go for help to nations such as Belgium or Denmark, active during the Libya campaign, as Mali's Islamist forces took the world by surprise, moving much further south than expected.

C17 transport planes

"It's not impossible that others might still join," said Techau.

A surprise offer by militarily-reluctant Germany of logistical, medical or humanitarian aid for the French was "a significant move", he said.

Britain's offer of two C17 transport planes - one currently under repair - was in "a logistical role only," said a spokesperson for Prime Minister David Cameron. "It will not be a combat role."

Britain's involvement will remain limited, a British official said, because Mali is a former French colony and "more within France's sphere of influence".

Germany "will not leave France alone in this difficult situation," a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

Though France might find itself by far the most heavily committed nation in Mali, it was unlikely to face opposition from its EU partners in its battle to defend the continent against al-Qaeda led terrorists, analysts said.

"There probably won't be a single country that opposes the action," unlike the splits that emerged within the 27-state EU during the Libya campaign, said Vivien Pertusot at Brussels-based IFRI think tank.

Military training mission

Southern European nations Spain and Italy, who like France have economic links with Africa as well as a strong interest in keeping Islamist radicals across the Mediterranean at bay, could be tempted to join the military operation, he said.

"But Spain is in the economic doldrums and Italy in an election campaign," Pertusot said.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has pledged to accelerate the dispatch of a military training mission in Mali, which due to events may be launched early in February.

EU leaders in December approved a plan to send some 250 military trainers for the Malian army, backed by a protection force and other personnel, bringing the total of EU soldiers to be sent to the West African nation to 400-500.

French General Francois Lecointre, due there in coming days, [will be in charge] another source said.

"But the logic behind the mission has changed," said a military source. "How can it train Malian troops now engaged in combat?"

Read more on:    france  |  mali  |  west africa
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