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French push Algeria to join Mali incursion

Dec. 17, 2012 at 12:21 PM   |   Comments

ALGIERS, Algeria, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- French President Francois Hollande flies to Algeria, North Africa's military heavyweight, this week seeking to persuade its leaders to back armed intervention in Mali to crush Islamist militants there, an undertaking many see as fraught with risk.

Hollande will have a problem, even though the general feeling is that intervention by a 6,000-strong force drawn from regional powers, with France and the United States in the background, is months away.

His two-day visit starting Wednesday comes as Algeria celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence from France after a ferocious 8-year war and still smolders with resentment against the region's former colonial power.

The United Nations has sanctioned armed intervention in Mali by regional powers under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States amid fears the growing strength of the Islamists who have controlled northern Mali since March threatens regional states and even Europe.

The French once ruled a colonial empire across north and central Africa and still have major economic interests in the region. They have long deployed military contingents, including Special Forces, in the region.

The Algerian government under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which fought an 8-year civil war against Islamist radicals and still battles diehard insurgents, hasn't opposed the U.N. resolution approving the use of force passed Oct. 12.

The Algerians don't want to see French military power returning to the region and this will surely be a central issue in Hollande's discussions in Algiers.

Bouteflika says he favors a "negotiated political solution" and Algerian leaders are reluctant to get involved in large-scale military operations that go against the country's stated policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states.

But Algeria's powerful generals are understood to prefer to lead regional counterinsurgency forces against the jihadists, especially since they got their hands of large amounts of weapons plundered during Libya's 2011 civil war.

The United States also favors military intervention, though not by its own forces, and is likely to become the main financier of any regional operation.

The Pentagon's main concern that the African military force being planned won't be large enough or hard-hitting enough to crush the Mali Islamists.

Its stated focus is on helping regional militaries to confront the growing jihadist threat on the continent, particularly in the north, the emergent oil and gas states in the west and east.

However, U.S. interest in Africa is growing, particularly as China is amassing major oil and mineral resources there to feed its ever-growing economy.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked in November that the United States is "stepping up our counter-terrorism efforts" against the jihadist threat in North Africa.

Washington's new counter-terrorism strategy is to build up Special Forces contingents around the globe, including bases for unmanned aerial vehicles armed with Hellfire missiles that have been decimating al-Qaida's leadership in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Senior U.S. and French diplomats and military officers met in Paris in October for two days to work out a joint strategy for hitting the Islamist forces in northern Mali, a desolate region about the size of France.

The officers included Gen. William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, and a senior representative from the U.S. Africa Command.

Algeria refuses to open its airspace to the Americans, although Morocco, a longtime U.S. ally, is doing so discreetly.

The main Islamist force is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Arabic word for North Africa. It's considered to be the jihadist movement's most active and expanding group.

"Once considered one of the weaker al-Qaida affiliates, AQIM is now considered much more dangerous, having demonstrated the ability to exploit the regional chaos in order to gain a foothold," the Long War Journal, a website that monitors global terrorism, reports.

France declared war on AQIM in 2010 after it beheaded an elderly French hostage.

However, Pascale Combelles Siegel, a defense consultant, observed in an analysis for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank, that armed intervention "is fraught with dangers and uncertainties for France."

One of those is the fate of seven French hostages held by AQIM in its Mali stronghold, where the jihadists are building up their defenses and steadily being reinforced by foreign militants.

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