French-led forces have now apparently taken Timbuktu, a day after seizing its airport in a lightning advance against the jihadist militias that held northern Mail. Gao is also under the control of French and Malian troops, leaving only Kidal still in rebel hands among the major towns in Mali's desert north. The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has agreed to boost its troop committment for Mali to 5,700—now that (unless an insurgency is to follow) France has already done the bulk of the fighting. In very sad news, the jihadist forces upon fleeing Timbuktu for the desert, apparently torched the Ahmed Baba Institute—a library housing a priceless collection of centuries-old Islamic manuscripts. "They burned the Ahmed Baba Institute," Timbuktu's exiled Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse said from Bamako. "It's a catastrophe—for Timbuktu and all humanity." (Middle East Online, DPA, NYT, Jan. 28)
French and Malian troops are reported to have entered the key central Malian towns of Diabaly and Doutenza, routing the jihadist forces that had taken power there. "The goal is the total reconquest of Mali," said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. "We will not leave any pockets" of resistance. US Air Force C-17 transport planes have completed five flights from bases in France into Bamako, delivering 80 troops and more than 120 tons of their equipment, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little. It could take the Pentagon two weeks to transport the entire 600-member French mechanized infantry unit and all of their gear, according to Pentagon officials. Michael Battle, US ambassador to the African Union, emphasized: "Our support of French operations in Mali does not involve what is traditionally referred to as boots on the ground... We don't have any plans to put [boots] on the ground at this time in support of French operations."
Piracy on the world's seas reached a five-year low last year, with 297 ships attacked in 2012, compared with 439 in 2011, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) said in its annual global piracy report. Worldwide figures were brought down by international efforts against Somali piracy, the repor found, though East and West Africa remained the worst hit areas, with 150 attacks in 2012. Globally, 174 ships were boarded by pirates last year, while 28 were hijacked and 28 were fired upon. IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre also recorded 67 attempted attacks. The number of people taken hostage onboard fell to 585 from 802 in 2011, while a further 26 were kidnapped for ransom in Nigeria. Six crewmembers were killed and 32 were injured or assaulted.
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor on Jan. 22 began his appeal in The Hague against his conviction and 50-year sentence for war crimes committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Taylor's 42-point appeal states that the the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) made "systematic errors" in evaluating evidence and relied on hearsay testimony of the 94 prosecution witnesses as the basis for its fact-finding.
Amid sketchy and conflicting reports of how much territory the jihadists have gained in their southern thrust and to what extent last week's French air-strikes have halted it, BBC News tells us Jan. 16 that French ground forces are now engaged in the battle for the town of Diabaly, just 220 miles north of Mali's capital, Bamako. A convoy of 50 armored vehicles left Bamako overnight for Diabaly, seemingly a joint force of French and Malian troops. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: "Today, the ground forces are being deployed. Until now, we had made sure there were a few ground forces in Bamako to keep our people safe... Now French ground forces are heading up north."
France carried out air-strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali Jan. 11, helping government forces halt a drive southward by the militants who control the country's desert north. France also evidently has introduced ground forces, with President Francois Hollande saying French troops "have brought support this afternoon to Malian units to fight against terrorist elements." He added: "This operation will last as long as is necessary." Combined Malian and French forces turned back a rebel advance, retaking the town of Konna (Mopti region, see map) that had been seized by a mixed force of the militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO, apparently with fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mali's government declared a nation-wide state of emergency as the counter-offensive was launched.
As Islamist miltias have established Taliban-like rule in northern Mali since taking the vast territory in March, regional powers have been muddling towards military intervention. On Nov. 21, Reuters reported that "military experts from Africa, the United Nations and Europe have drafted plans to retake control of northern Mali." We are told that "African leaders will this month seek a UN mandate to send a mainly West African force of some 4,000 to Mali to...back military operations to retake swathes of the Sahara desert from rebels." Quoted is Stephen O'Brien, the UK's first special envoy to the Sahel, speaking from Nigeria: "This deep insecurity... we have to recognize that, unless it is checked and it is not met, then it will have the potential for export." He called the Mali crisis was "a universal threat" with "the capability of threatening interests outside the...region." While no other European countries are mentioned, we may assume that France will play a leading role.
Drug trafficking and violent crime in Central America and the Caribbean threaten the rule of law in those regions, according to a report released Sept. 27 by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report concluded that cocaine trafficking and the associated violence are the main source of the threat. The UNODC expressed concern that addressing drug trafficking and violence through the use of increasing police presence could further threaten the rule of law by eroding civil rights and displacing organized crime to neighboring nations. The report called on nations in the region to coordinate an international effort to reduce crime, strengthen infrastructure and gain public confidence in law enforcement. It also recommended that the UN provide supplementary law enforcement and advisers to assist the region in developing a strong rule of law.