by our African Affairs correspondent
BRITISH troops are going into Mali to back the French sweep to drive Islamic rebels out of the north of the country. French warplanes have been pounding rebel targets to pave the way for the advance of French and Malian government troops into northern Mali. And Touareq nationalist militias have now turned their guns on the Islamist rebels, saying they are willing to work with the French, but not the Malian army, in the push against al Qaeda fanatics.
The Cameron government claims that British troops would not be participating directly in combat, but would only provide armed “force protection”. But Downing Street did state that Britain has both the “capability and capacity” for a larger deployment.
The rebels have been driven out of Timbuktu and other key towns, and the French President says they are now “winning this battle” to restore the authority of the Malian regime and its imperialist masters.
Timbuktu’s main library, containing more than 20,000 manuscripts covering centuries of Mali’s history, is ablaze — torched, the French say, by fleeing Islamist rebels who were using the building as a barracks. And French and Malian forces are patrolling the streets of the city to prevent a repetition of the wholesale looting that followed the rebel retreat.
Some 400,000 Malians have fled the country since the civil war began last year. And human rights groups have voiced concern over the French information blackout on the number of civilian casualties and reports of indiscriminate bombing and atrocities by the Malian troops and their French advisors.
The French-imposed media black-out on the campaign means nobody knows the extent of the death and destruction that has followed the wake of “Operation Serval” and the Malian regime has not issued any figures about casualties either.
Though the French claim that there have been no civilian casualties, thanks to the precision of their airstrikes, the mayor of the Malian town of Konna recently declared that 11 civilians, including women and children, were killed as a result of French air-raids.
Marie-Pierre Allie from Doctors Without Borders says some wounded civilians have been hospitalised so far, but the number of injured could be more than what has been observed.
Meanwhile people in the northern part of Mali are concerned over the imminent threats against the lives. Malian government troops have been accused of summarily executing dozens of people, some only because of their ethnicity or for lacking identity papers.
Back in London there is equal concern at increasing British military involvement in the Malian conflict. The Cameron government says 350 troops will be sent to Mali to support the French operation as part of a British mission to train Malian forces and engage in “force protection”.
This week British representatives attended a meeting in Brussels to discuss the provision of troops as part of a European Union mission to the African country. The EU estimates that 500 supplementary troops will be sent to Mali, some 350 of whom will be British. This will include approximately 40 military advisers who will train soldiers in Mali and 200 British soldiers to be sent to neighbouring African countries.
But this could be the thin end of the wedge. Campaigning Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn told the media: “Two weeks ago we started by offering transport planes to France; we then sent force protection to back up the transport planes, we sent trainers, we have additional force protection to protect them,” .
Corbyn, a pillar of the Labour Representation Committee, compared the new conflict in Mali to the “French reaction of Afghanistan in 2001.”
That war, which started in a “hunky-dory” manner, later developed “into a greater war which is now going on for 11 years”