Mali, a former French colony, is a West African nation that had often been cited as a democratic model. But in March 2012, mutinous soldiers in Bamako, the capital, rose up in a coup,overthrowing the elected government of President Amadou Toumani Touré.
The soldiers were angry over the government’s mishandling of a rebellion by nomadic Tuareg rebels in the country’s vast northern desert. But shortly after the coup, the Tuareg rebels first seized much of the north and then were themselves pushed out by Islamist extremists.
That development that raised worries around the world about the creation of a potential safe haven for terrorists. With Mali’s military reluctant to act, France began a military intervention in January 2013. After a round of air strikes failed to dislodge the rebels, theFrench military deployed ground troops and prepared for what it said could be a lengthy effort to retake the country’s north.
Since the March 2012 coup, Mali has been ruled in theory by a series of civilian leaders while the military has appeared to retain power in fact.
In April 2012, under international pressure, the military junta agreed to a civilian government led by an interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, the former leader of the national assembly, and an interim prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, an astrophysicist who once worked at NASA and a political neophyte known for emotional outbursts.
Mr. Traoré‘s future as president came into question a month later, when a mob of angry protesters stormed the presidential palace and beat him into unconsciousness. In December 2012, in an apparent second coup, soldiers arrested Mr. Diarra, the prime minister, who then announced his resignation on television. Three days later, a new prime minister, Diango Cissoko, was sworn in and took office.
At the same time, the upheaval in the government and military has left the Malian Army rudderless and unable to defend Mali’s northern desert region, which has become an enclave and training ground for radical jihadi factions, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who have imposed a brutal application of Shariah law that includes public whippings, beatings, amputations and stonings. The weak Malian army has retreated south and African nations debated how to find money and soldiers to recapture the territory.
In January 2013, the Islamists suddenly charged southward with a force of 800 to 900 fighters in 50 to 200 vehicles, taking over a frontier town that had been the de facto line of government control. Worried that there was little to stop the militants from storming ever further into Mali, France — for the second time in less than two years — intervened by sending armed forces into combat.
By late January, the French forces had reclaimed a series of northern cities and towns from the Islamists. But questions remained about whether they would be able to drive them completely from the vast, mostly empty area, and whether Mali’s shaky military forces could retain control.
The Tuareg are a nomadic people who live largely in the Sahara Desert, spanning Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya. For centuries they plied caravan routes across the desert, but colonial borders turned them into citizens of several different nations. In the 1960s and 1990s, Tuareg rebellions erupted in the Sahara, seeking autonomy or independence. Violence flared again in 2007 in Niger, when Tuareg rebels seeking to wrest control of the country’s rich uranium deposits mounted a rebellion.
Libya’s former leader, Col. Muammar el Qaddafi, supported Tuareg rebellions in Mali and Niger over several decades, and analysts in the region say the most recent uprising in Mali is closely linked to the fall of Colonel Qaddafi, whose weapons are suspected of playing a major role in the Malian rebels’ success.
That success led to intense frustration in the 7,000-strong Malian Army, which blamed the government of Mr. Touré, a former general, for the military’s shaky position.
In the North, a Radical Islamist Takeover
In the days after the military coup, the Tuareg rebels seized much of the desert expanse in northern Mali, declaring it an independent state called Azawad. But the Tuareg rebels — called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the M.N.L.A. — were then pushed into the background by the fierce ascendancy of radical Islamists, who have imposed a strict form of Shariah law on the region and now control the principal towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
On July 18, the government of Mali formally asked the International Criminal Court to investigate atrocities attributed to groups of armed rebels, including Islamic extremists.
In the South, a Climate of Violent Repression
While much alarm has been expressed about the extremist ministate in northern Mali, the situation in Bamako, the capital, is dire in its own way, with a worsening climate of repression and intimidation.
Hooded gunmen have abducted and beaten journalists at night. Soldiers who opposed the military junta have been tortured or forcibly “disappeared.” Those who beat the country’s elderly interim president have escaped without charges.
U.N. Chief Expresses Support for Mlitary Action
In late November, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, recommended that the Security Council endorse a plan by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States to deploy a security force at the request of the Mali government to reclaim the north from the extremists. But the action did not offer financial support from the United Nations.
While a detailed military plan has yet to be drafted, the idea has been for about 3,300 troops from Nigeria and other African countries to help Mali’s military mount a campaign against the militants. France, the United States and other countries would help with training, intelligence and logistics.
Al Qaeda Link
In early December, the top American military commander in Africa said that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was operating terrorist training camps in northern Mali and providing arms, explosives and financing to Boko Haram, a militant Islamist organization in northern Nigeria.
Prime Minister Arrested
In an apparent second coup, soldiers arrested Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra at his home late on Dec. 10, 2012. Hours later, a grim faced Mr. Diarra went on national television announce his government’s resignation.
On Dec. 13, a new prime minister, Diango Cissoko, was sworn in and took office.
U.N. Authorizes Mali Force
The next week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution to send thousands of African troops into Mali to help oust Islamist extremists who have turned its northern half into a vast Qaeda enclave and training ground.
But the resolution also made clear that such a military intervention will not happen until Mali’s own dysfunctional army is adequately trained and a framework for political stability and elections is restored in the country, which has been in turmoil since a military coup in March.
France Sends Troops Into Combat in Mali
France sent armed forces into combat in Mali on Jan. 11, 2013, answering an urgent plea from the government of its former colony in West Africa to help blunt a sudden and aggressive advance into the center of the country by Islamist extremist militants.
French officials confirmed that the French forces, which included paratroopers and helicopter gunships, had engaged in fighting with the Islamists after landing at a major airfield in the central Mali town of Sévaré.
After halting the advance by al-Qaeda linked groups, French troops entered Kidal, the last Islamist bastion in northern Mali, as part of a counter-offensive which has seen Islamist fighters disappear into the desert. France has said it wants to quickly get out again though and the international community is having to rewrite its plans for Mali. Timbuktu was occupied by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Ansar and Dine (Defenders of Islam) for ten months now is in control of French and Malian military.
(References: Press releases by French Govt, UN Releases & New York Times )