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Last week, Mali asked its former colonial occupier, France, to send help to quell the rapid development of Islamist extremist militants. The country has seen an extreme rise in the number of militants operating in northern Mali since a coup d’état last year.
On Friday, French officials confirmed reports that French paratroopers and helicopter gunships had been used in combat against radical Islamists in central Mali.
The escalation of fighting between rebel and government forces this week marked the first violence since spring of 2012, when rebels gained control of the northern half of Mali. The militant forces currently number over 800 and they have nearly 200 vehicles at their disposal. They control the northern half of the large African country, and have turned it into a ‘militant haven.'
The New York Times reports an anonymous Malian official as saying, “It’s a very serious situation, very dangerous. There were hard fights, but we lost."
The inability of the Malian Army to reconquer the north indicates its weakness and the need for international action, according to the NY Times. French officials agreed that the Malian force was not ready to respond to the crisis.
In December, a UN Security Council decision sanctioned the use of force against the Islamists. Interim Malian president, Dioncounda Traore, said that this was not enough. Last week, he asked French President François Hollande to supplement the inadequate Malian government forces.
Hollande did not mention the exact number or nature of the French deployment, but he reassured Malians that the mission would “last as long as necessary”. According to the Washington Post, Hollande said, “At stake is the very existence of the Malian state."
In Mali, Islamist militias have imposed strict Muslim law on the population and created breeding grounds of recruitment and training for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).