France at crossroads over Mali insurgency

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PARIS -- It's crunch time in Mali for the French military.

Radical Islamist fighters spent weeks on the run from Malian cities under a French ground and air assault -- but they are brazenly fighting back this week against French troops. The French, meanwhile, are tightening a dragnet against the al-Qaida-linked militants in one of their last remaining redoubts, mountain sanctuaries near Algeria's border.

France's government said Wednesday that it is still hoping to pull out of its thorny Mali operation in coming weeks. Defense analysts say that if France wants to make that work, and avoid getting bogged down in a protracted, Afghan-style occupation, now is the time to hit hard -- dismantling the hideouts and killing all the insurgents they can -- to crush what it fears is a growing terrorist threat that could spread to Mali's African neighbors, and even as far as Europe.

French and Malian authorities on Wednesday sifted over the fallout from a nearly six-hour gunfight Tuesday, when about 30 jihadist fighters surprised a 50-troop French reconnaissance patrol about 30 miles south of the town of Tessalit in the Adrar des Ifoughas region, and opened fire with machine guns. The far-more-muscular French called in support from Mirage fighter jets, helicopter gunships and armored vehicles firing 105-mm cannons. By the end, more than 20 insurgents and one French legionnaire were killed, French officials said.

President Francois Hollande has insisted that France -- eager for African forces to help stabilize the impoverished West African country and its wobbly central government -- is entering the final phase of its operation. But he has said France would "go all the way -- that is to say, arresting the last terrorist chiefs in northern Mali."

Defense analysts are blunter. The extremists "have their backs against the wall," said Francois Heisbourg, president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank and an adviser to France's Foundation for Strategic Research.

Mr. Heisbourg estimated that there are about 1,200 to 2,000 radical Islamic fighters in three extremist movements in northern Mali. They controlled northern Mali for 10 months until the French incursion began Jan. 11.

Mr. Heisbourg cautioned that if rebel fighters headed south to Niger, home to higher mountains than the Ifoghas, it could present longer-term problems for counterterrorism forces.

world


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