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Despite French Air Strikes, Islamic Militants Seize More Territory In Mali


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

France has opened the gates of hell - those words from the spokesman from an al-Qaida-linked militant group in the West African nation of Mali. The warning comes after four days of extensive French airstrikes on rebel strongholds in the north of the country.

France has pledged to help Mali's weak central government defeat Islamist insurgents, who have been slowly fighting their way south toward the capital city, Bamako. Today, even after those French airstrikes, insurgents are reported to have seized a town in central Mali.

Adam Nossiter is the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, and he joins us now from Bamako. And, Adam, to start, give us a little context. Just how much of the country is under the control of rebels, and where were these French airstrikes focused?

ADAM NOSSITER: Well, the northern half of the country is still in control of the Islamist rebels. They've taken some serious hits from the French, but they're still in place, and there are no French forces on the ground in the northern half of the country.

CORNISH: At this point, does Mali's army actually have the ability to follow up on this military support from the French and actually make headway against the Islamist-backed fighters?

NOSSITER: That's pretty doubtful. They've managed to lose two strategic villages in less than a week despite having had months to prepare their defenses. So the only thing one can conclude from this is that they are every bit as weak as they were nine months ago when they were overrun by a coalition of Islamist and nomadic rebel forces.

CORNISH: In your coverage of what's been happening in Mali, you write that the collapse of Mali's government and the rise of Islamist militants, they're coincided with the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Explain that link.

NOSSITER: Well, when Gadhafi fell, his extensive arsenals in the south of Libya were left totally unguarded, unprotected by the Western forces that brought him down. Gadhafi had fighting for him a number of ethnic nomad fighters from Mali, the Tuaregs. And so when Gadhafi fell, these Tuaregs returned to Mali, where their group had been conducting a rebellion for almost 60 years against the Malian state.

They took with them a lot of the weapons that were in Gadhafi's arsenal. So for the first time in their long history of rebellion against Mali, they were properly armed and equipped thanks to Moammar Gadhafi. And it was those weapons that allowed these nomadic rebels to crush the Malian army in January, February and March of 2012.

Al-Qaida was already installed in the desert and they made a sort of tactical alliance with these nomadic rebels. But the al-Qaida forces, being tougher, took the upper hand, and so now they're the ones in control.

CORNISH: As we mentioned, you're speaking to us from Bamako now, the capital city. What is it like there, and do people there consider a fight inevitable?

NOSSITER: I think there's a huge sense of relief in the population that some resolution might be at hand, and there's huge gratitude towards the French for having finally stepped in. In fact, you can see people waving French flags and posting French flags and headlines saying vive la France. So I think there is recognition that the Malian army itself was incapable of resolving the situation and there's thanks to the French.

CORNISH: But is it entirely clear that this is going to be successful?

NOSSITER: Nothing is entirely clear. The Islamists have taken a serious hit in the last few days, but they're not a conventional enemy. And it's one thing to bomb a few installations from the air, but it's another to wipe out a force that is very good at hiding itself in the desert and is perfectly adapted to that terrain. So I don't think this is going to be an easy enemy to defeat.

CORNISH: Adam Nossiter is the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. Adam, thank you for speaking with us.

NOSSITER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.