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France Aids Mali In Operation To Oust Militants


France has launched two military offensives in Africa, in the past 24 hours. French armed forces have been in operations in Mali, trying to stop the gains of al-Qaida-linked rebels there, who control the north of that West African country. Of course, France is the former colonial power in Mali. French forces have launched airstrikes against the Islamist militants who seized a northern desert zone the size of Texas, last year. The French Defense Ministry says that its troops destroyed a rebel command center overnight. A French helicopter pilot died in that operation. In a separate operation, French commandos also reportedly attacked an Islamist base in Somalia, to try to rescue a French hostage. But reportedly, the hostage died.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is at her base in neighboring Senegal. Ofeibea, thanks very much for being with us.


SIMON: Help us understand the size and scale of French operations under way in Mali.

QUIST-ARCTON: The French Defense Ministry is saying that hundreds of its troops are now in Mali. And this is at the request of Mali's interim president because of the threat from al-Qaida-linked Islamists who, as you said, control the north and were pushing down towards the south, Scott; and especially towards a garrison town called Mopti. That's the gateway between the north and the south.

And let me just tell you, briefly, that these Islamists have taken control of the north; have imposed Islamic Sharia law, which includes penalties such as cutting off people's limbs. They're forcing women to wear scarves over their heads. They have banned music. They have also desecrated and destroyed Mali Muslim shrines in legendary cities, such as Timbuktu. So the threat has been there, but the fact that they have been pushing south is why, I think, the French have decided to come to Mali's aid.

SIMON: Is there any indication that the French will be joined - or hope to be joined - by other nations in Africa or European states?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, the U.N. Security Council decided last month - rather reluctantly, Scott - that an African-led force would try to push back these militants. But that wasn't to happen until later in the year, in the fall - around September or so; that the Malian army needed training first; that the U.S., France, Europe would help with logistics. But the fact that the Islamists have decided to strike and seize the moment, and try to control more territory, is why, I think, the French - a former colonial power in Mali - decided that it must take action now. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Defense Ministry, said France was compelled to act quickly to stop the Islamist offensive, which he said - and I quote - "could allow a terrorist state on the doorstep of France and Europe."

SIMON: And what kind of local reaction has there been, on the African continent, to the French intervention?

QUIST-ARCTON: Mali's government has - Mali's president has thanked France for this military intervention. And I think there's relief in Mali, and elsewhere in Africa, because they felt that the militants were just allowed to sit, consolidating their power in the north - which the U.S., and many others, say has become a haven for traffickers and terrorists; and that action had to happen, and if the French have stepped in, bravo, that was needed.

SIMON: What can you tell us about the separate operation in which apparently, a French hostage was killed, and French commandos tried to rescue him?

QUIST-ARCTON: French commandos tried to rescue this spy agent, who was captured by al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. They failed. The French Defense Ministry is telling us that two of their commandos died, and they feel that the captors have probably killed the hostage. The Al-Shabaab militants say the hostage is still alive. So that was a failure, although in Mali, people are praising France for its military intervention.

SIMON: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, joining us from Dakar. Thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.