BAMAKO, Mali, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- French troops recently attacked activists of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb with Mauritanian forces in Mali, killing 12 in an operation that underlined France's growing involvement in the desert war against the jihadists in North Africa.
Mauritanian officials announced the attack shortly after it took place Sept. 17 but made no mention of French participation. That was only disclosed earlier this month by Mauritania's Defense Minister Hamadi Ould Baba Ould Hamadi.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared war on AQIM operating in the Sahara Desert and the semi-arid Sahel region in July after the militants beheaded 78-year-old French hostage Michel Germaneau.
Some 40 French Special Forces troopers took part in a raid on an AQIM camp in Mali with Mauritanian forces July 22 in a bungled attempt to rescue the ailing Germaneau.
Seven jihadists were killed. AQIM, dominated by battle-hardened Algerian jihadists, warned he had "opened the gates of hell" and vowed to retaliate.
On Sept. 16, AQIM kidnapped five French citizens, along with two Africans, at a French-owned uranium mining operation in Niger.
Osama bin Laden urged action against France in an audiotape issued Oct. 27 for its treatment of Muslims and its intervention in North Africa.
His message, said Sahara expert Jeremy Keegan of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, "is likely to have profound implications on the so-called war on al-Qaida in the Sahara and Sahel, as well as on French and European policies in the region."
As Europe takes note of the jihadist threat on its southern flank, Keegan says the Sahel states "stand to acquire a huge increase in development/security aid and related assistance" from the European Union.
French participation in the anti-terrorist operation with Mauritania the day after the Niger kidnappings indicated Paris is prepared to put boots on the ground in a growing counterinsurgency drive by regional powers to curb the jihadists' expansion across the region.
Paris, which still maintains military bases in its former African empire, has been tight-lipped about the involvement of its elite Special Forces.
At least 80 men, backed by two surveillance aircraft, were deployed in Niger to track down the captives seized in September.
Others are known to be in Burkina Faso. But it may be that French troops are taking part in other counterinsurgency operations elsewhere in the region.
One reason for the French reticence on the issue, apart from operational secrecy, is that Algeria, like many countries in the region a former French colony, bitterly opposes foreign intervention.
The Algerians fought a brutal independence war against France in 1954-62 and now are the major military power in the region.
They are the driving force for a unified effort to eliminate the jihadists and have vigorously emphasized their distaste for "coordination with foreign powers, especially when they have a colonial past in the region."
The chief of staff of the Algerian armed forces, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, sent a clear message to Paris at a meeting of regional military chiefs Sept. 26 when he declared he intended to retain control over his "Sahel backyard."
The Algerians were behind the formation of a region-wide counterinsurgency command center at their Tamanrasset air base deep in the Sahara in April.
But regional rivalries, exemplified by the 25-year-old dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the mineral-rich Western Sahara, have undermined the effort.
There is considerable antipathy toward Algeria by its neighbors. There are widely held suspicions its powerful intelligence service is linked to al-Qaida, a consequence of Algeria's war against Islamist militants throughout most of the 1990s.
Mauritania, with few military resources, has been happy to accept French forces on its territory and, as has been seen, has allowed them to take part in at least two operations against AQIM, much to Algiers' chagrin.
Mali, which has long tolerated the jihadists, is showing signs of readiness to move against them, possibly with French support.
"Young Mauritanians have become increasingly attracted to the 'Sahara Emirate,' as they call it," Keegan says.
The extent of the commitment by regional governments to combat AQIM was underlined Oct. 14, when former Tuareg rebels in Mali killed 12 cocaine smugglers linked to al-Qaida, indicating the Tuareg have joined forces with the Malian government against the jihadists.