French President to Visit Troops in Mali

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MUNICH -- President François Hollande of France was on his way to Mali on Friday evening to thank French soldiers, to underline the need for a political solution to Mali's divisions and to emphasize to French voters his resolute and so-far successful intervention in the former French colony.

Mr. Hollande, who was often criticized in the past for his lack of decisiveness, has gotten a small bump in opinion polls after moving quickly to send the French military to the aid of a weak, transitional government in Mali that seemed in imminent danger of falling to a coalition of radical Islamists equipped with weaponry taken from Libya.

While the French have rapidly driven the radical Islamists out of population centers in the north, with the loss of only one French helicopter pilot, Mr. Hollande's aides are conscious of the risks of overstaying and becoming targets themselves.

The French strategy has been to push the radicals back into the deserts and hills of the far north, where they can be monitored by drones and attacked by air. The French expect that the radicals will have a harder time stocking up on gasoline and food, especially if Algeria, as promised, seals its border with Mali, making it more difficult for the Islamist militants to plan further raids and kidnappings of Westerners.

But no French official interviewed in Paris believes that the radical Islamists have disappeared.

The French are pressing for African troops to garrison the cities of northern Mali before the rains come in March, and they are pressing President Dioncounda Traoré of Mali to start negotiations quickly with Tuareg rebels in the north, most of whom do not share the radical Islamist view. The majority of Tuaregs, the French say, will agree to remain in a sovereign Mali with more guarantees of political autonomy, and the French hope that a deal would lead to early national elections.

The French Foreign Finistry has called on the Mali government in the capital city of Bamako to open talks with "legitimate representatives" and "nonterrorist armed groups" in the north, a clear reference to the more secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the MNLA.

Bamako has said it is open to talks with the MNLA, which has dissociated itself from the radical Islamists, so long as it gives up its demand for full Tuareg independence. But the government has ruled out talks with the radical Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine, one of the leading militant organizations.

Paris also wants to see the presence of up to 5,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops, officials say, to underline the international support for an integral Mali and further dilute the French presence.

French officials are also concerned, at least in private, about charges that the regular Malian army has been guilty of human rights abuses and killings of Tuareg and Arab civilians and former fighters. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, have cited evidence of summary executions by the Malian army as it has moved north with the French.

The radical Islamists who controlled the north for 10 months have been accused of similar abuses, including murder and the rough application of Shariah law -- the stoning of adulterous women and the cutting off of the hands of thieves. But the French recognize that they bear some responsibility for the behavior of their allies, the Malian government and its army.

Mr. Hollande will emphasize all these points to Mr. Traoré, French officials said. Mr. Hollande will be accompanied by his top national security team, including Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, as well as the deputy minister for development in the Foreign Ministry, Pascal Canfin The French officials are expected to meet Mr. Traoré in the central town of Sévaré, then travel with him to picturesque Timbuktu to meet with the French and Malian forces stationed there, and perhaps to view the damage done to historical and religious sites by the radical Islamists. Mr. Hollande is scheduled to return to France on Saturday evening.

The French dilemma in this second phase was summarized neatly by Vincent Giret in the newspaper Libération. If the French remain on the front line they will look, "sooner or later, like white neocolonialists," he wrote, and any bad event can turn public opinion quickly sour. But if the French army "settles for a role supporting the Malian and African troops left on the front line, it then risks being accused of covering up abuses and score-settlings: the spirit of vengeance is already creeping into the liberated cities of the north."

However decisive the first military phase has been, Mr. Giret wrote, "there is no military solution to the Malian crisis -- politics must take over in short order." France must not only work to rebuild the broken state of Mali, but also press Malian leaders to find an answer to "the 'Tuareg question,' a necessary condition for isolating the terrorists."

Scott Sayare contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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