France in Africa
A French court opened trial Feb. 4 against former Rwandan intelligence chief Pascal Simbikangwa in the country's first trial of a suspect in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Simbikangwa, 54, is charged with arming and directing Hutu extremists in the violence that claimed the lives of an estimated half a million ethnic Tutsi. He was arrested in 2008 while in hiding on the French island of Mayotte. A paraplegic since 1986, Simbikangwa faces a potential life sentence for complicity in the genocide and crimes against humanity. The current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has accused France of supporting the Hutu militia and harboring fugitives who fled to France in the years following the genocide. This trial is seen as an important first step in repairing relations between the embittered nations.
Libya's ongoing internal chaos briefly made world news Dec. 5 as a US national, a teacher at the Benghazi International School named Ronald Smith, was shot to death under circumstances that are still unclear. Whoever was behind it, it will be a headache for Obama, whose opponents are still milking the "Benghazigate" scandal. (CNN, Dec. 5) Other than when a US citizen dies, the world media take little note the near-daily violence in the city. On the same day Smith was killed, a member of Libya's Special Forces and a young cadet were gunned down in Benghazi. And the head of the Presidential Guards of the city, Anwar al-Dous, lost a leg when an explosive device detonated under his car. (Libya Herald, Dec. 5) Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou, speaking at a Franco-African summit in Paris, responded by implying that Libya could be next for intervention: "Our fear is that Libya falls into the hands of Salafist terrorists and that the state becomes like Somalia... Sadly, we're seeing that the terrorists are there and that armed Salafist militia are in Benghazi, with people being killed almost every day. We must stabilize Libya." (Reuters, Dec. 6)
France is escalating its military mission in the Central African Republic, airlifting troops and equipment to the capital Bangui ahead of an anticipated UN-backed intervention. With some 400 French troops stationed in Bangui presently, at least another 1,000 are on their way, said Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Paris, echoing the findings of rights groups, says the country has descended into chaos since the Seleka rebel coalition, many of its fighters apparently from neighboring Chad and Sudan, ousted president François Bozize in March 24. (France24, Nov. 29) With the French announcement, Amnesty International issued a statement calling for the UN Security Council to "authorize a robust peacekeeping force" for the CAR. "If the Security Council does not act now to stem the horrific cycle of violence in the Central African Republic, that failure will hang heavily on the international community for years to come," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general. (AI, Dec. 12)
French troops last week launched a new offensive against Islamist rebels in northern Mali—raised questions about whether Paris will in fact reduce the number of its forces in the African country from 3,000 to 1,200 by year's end as planned. Islamist militants have been struggling to regain control of the contested area, known as the Niger Loop, which includes the cities of Gao and Timbuktu. French general staff spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said the new campaign, dubbed "Operation Hydra," was undertaken joinlty with Malian army forces and troops from MINUSMA, the UN force for the country. "It is the first time we have seen forces of significant size working together," Jaron said. (NYT, IBT, Al Jazeera, Oct. 24)
A visit by a delegation of cabinet ministers from Mali's central government to Kidal, the northern town held by Tuareg rebels of the MNLA, sparked a mini-intifada Sept. 17. Tuareg youth attempted to block the delegation's plane from landing and then hurled stones at the ministerial convoy as it headed to the town. "Peacekeepers" from the UN Mission for Mali (MINUSMA) used tear-gas to disperse the protesters. Two bombs reportedly exploded in Kidal during the visit, although apparently causing no casualties.
At a ceremony in Bamako July 1, UN troops formally took over the "peacekeeping" mission in Mali, with authority transferred from the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). But most of the soldiers actually remained the same, with AFISMA troops merely donning the blue beret of UN peacekeeping forces. In April, the Security Council approved the 12,600-strong MINUSMA to take over from the African-led force, with authorization "to use all necessary means" to carry out humanitarian and security-related missions and protect civilians, UN staff and cultural artifacts. The new mission begins as French forces continue their phased withdrawal. But France, Mali's former colonial master, is to keep up to 1,000 troops in the country. (Al Jazeera, UN News Centre, July 1)
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said May 28 during a stop in Niger that the attackers who carried out last week's double suicide bombings on a military camp and uranium mine likely came from southern Libya—indicating that jihadist forces driven from north Mali have taken refuge across borders in the lawless spaces of the Sahara. He also said they had inside help, saying: "The terrorist groups benefited from a certain level of complicity." Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou's also said the jihadists infiltrated from Libya.
France has vowed to punish those responsible for the April 23 car bomb blast at its embassy in Tripoli that destroyed half the building and wounded six—two French guards, and four resident of nearby buildings that were damaged, including an 18-year-old woman who suffered spinal damage. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who immediately flew to Tripoli, vowed: "The terrorists who wanted to attack France and Libya and undermine the friendship between them will pay." Prime Minister Ali Zeidan visited the scene of the devastation with Fabius. There was no claim of responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell on al-Qaeda's North African arm, AQIM, which has repeatedly threatened retaliation for the French intervention in Mali. On April 25, two suspects arrested following a lightning investigation led by a French judge and a team of foresnics experts dispatched by Paris. (Libya Herald, Tripoli Post, April 25; Al Jazeera, NYT, April 23)