France faces Mali insurgency; US troops to Niger

President Obama announced Feb. 22 that about 100 US troops have been mobilized to Niger to help set up a new base for supposedly unarmed Predator drones to conduct surveillance in the region. The new drone base is to be located for now in the capital, Niamey. The only permanent US base in Africa is in Djibouti, but Niamey may now constitute a second. (NYT, Feb. 22)  Also Feb. 22, Chad announced that 13 of its soldiers and 65 Islamist rebels were killed in a fierce battle in the mountain region of Adrar des Ifoghas, on Mali's border with Algeria. In other fighting that day, at Tessalit, on the edge of the mountains, two vehicles carrying civilians and members of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group exploded, killing three and wounding several others. (VOA, Feb. 22) A second car bomb attack in Khalil, on the Algerian border, left five MNLA fighters dead. (Reuters, France24, Feb. 22)

Fighting began in the Adrar des Ifoghas on Feb. 17, when France deployed Mirage fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and armored vehicles to chase down militants who have taken refuge there, dubbing the campaign "Operation Panther." (AP, Feb. 21)

On Feb. 21, a car bomb attack near a camp housing French and Chadian troops in Kidal left two civilians wounded; Islamist faction MUJAO claimed responsibility. "More explosions will happen across our territory," MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui told AFP. Feb. 20 saw clashes in Gao between Franco-Malian troops and presumed MUJAO fighters that left at least five rebels dead after the militants took over the city's courthouse. Sahraoui pledged to recapture the city: "Our troops have been ordered to attack. If the enemy is stronger, we'll pull back only to return stronger, until we liberate Gao." (AFP, Feb. 22)

Human Rights Watch Feb. 21 urged the Malian government to prosecute soldiers who participate in violence toward suspected supporters of Islamist rebels. Government soldiers have allegedly participated in torture, summary executions and enforced disappearances that began after the French-led offensive in January. HRW alleges that witnesses recently informed the organization that government forces tortured two men, summarily executed two more, and forcibly disappeared at least six others since earlier this month, when the group reported the summary executions of at least 13 men and enforced disappearance of five. Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at HRW, said:

All officials need to act in accordance with human rights law if security and law and order are to be restored to areas recently recovered by the government. This means providing basic due process rights for anyone taken into custody, and making sure they are treated humanely. Commanders who fail to stop abuses by their troops can themselves be prosecuted.

Last week the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed sending a four-person team to investigate the claims of violence. International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has also announced an investigation into possible war crimes. (Jurist, Feb. 22)

France in "final phase" of Mali operation

File under "famous last words"?

Despite the weekend's fierece fighting in the Ifoghas Mountains, Francois Hollande has said French forces are engaged in the "final phase" of their operations in Mali. (BBC News, Feb. 24 via Africa Review)