French troops recapture key towns in Mali as Egypt sends warnings

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French and Malian troops recaptured Tuesday two key towns from al-Qaeda-linked Islamists holding the country’s north, as Egypt warned the Paris-led offensive could spark regional conflict.

The inroads into the central towns of Diabaly and Douentza marked a significant advance in the 11-day offensive led by former colonial power France, whose aim is the “total re-conquest” of Mali’s vast semi-arid north.

But Egypt, a regional powerhouse currently under the grip of Islamists, warmed that breaking the ranks with the global community could turn the vast arid zone of Sub Shara Africa into a new Afghanistan

“We do not accept at all the military intervention in Mali because that will fuel conflict in the region,” President Mohamed Mursi said Monday.

But in Diabaly, local residents applauded wildly as a convoy of about 30 armored vehicles with some 200 Malian and French troops moved into the town.

French military officials and local residents said the fleeing Islamists had riddled the town with landmines.

“There is a problem with unexploded ammunition,” said Lt. Col. Frederic, in charge of the operations in Diabaly, who identified himself by his first name only in line with French army policy.

Diabaly, which lies 400 kilometers north of the capital Bamako, has been the theater of air strikes and fighting since it was seized by Islamists a week ago.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the town of Douentza, which had been under Islamist control since September, had also been retaken by French and Malian troops.

Douentza is a strategic crossroads town some 100 kilometers east of Konna, whose capture earlier this month by extremists saw the French army swoop to the aid of the crippled and weak Malian army.

“The military operations to liberate the occupied regions of our country are panning out well and the need to install a peaceful social climate throughout the country,” a government statement said.

This comes as the country extended the period of its state of emergency that has already been in place for 3 months.

Distancing themselves from Egypt’s reaction, other countries offered their support -- but not necessarily their soldiers -- to France’s intervention.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal reiterated that his country would not put boots on the ground, but stressed that the “integrity” of Mali has to be preserved.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged support for France, saying “we cannot let them down. They are our partner,” but also excluded sending soldiers for the moment.

The European Union offered to host a global meeting on Mali in Brussels on Feb. 5, involving the African Union and the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States.

The planned deployment of around 6,000 African soldiers meanwhile continued slowly into Bamako. The UN-approved African-led force is hampered by cash and logistical constraints, requiring up to 200 million euros ($265 million).

Mali’s crisis first erupted when the nomadic Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by the government, launched a rebellion a year ago and inflicted such humiliation on the Malian army that it triggered a military coup in Bamako in March.

The Tuaregs allied with Islamist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and seized control of huge swathes of territory including the main northern towns of Gao, Kidal and fabled Timbuktu.

The Islamists soon chased out their more secular Tuareg allies and began imposing an extreme form of sharia, or Islamic law, flogging, amputating and sometimes executing violators.

Their success in seizing a vast stretch of desert territory raised fears they could use northern Mali as a base to launch attacks on the region, Europe and beyond.

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