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French Troops Aid Mali in Push Back of Islamic Militants

January 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the West African nation of Mali, where a war between radical Islamists and government forces has been waged for nearly nine months.

The militants gained control of the north, some two-thirds of the country, last summer and imposed Sharia law. The United States and other Western countries have largely stayed out of the conflict, despite worries of a wider threat to the region.

That all changed Friday when the French government launched air attacks after the fighters took over a village in government-controlled territory.

We begin with this report narrated by Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN MILLER: Three jihadist groups now deemed to pose a clear and present danger to the capital, Bamako, and beyond, a threat to Africa and Europe.

COL. PAUL GEZE, French ground commander (through translator): The military units I command will not stay in Bamako, which will be our military base, but will go further north and combat the terrorist groups there, in addition to the airstrikes that we have undertaken in the past two days.

JONATHAN MILLER: The operation already proving heavily dependent on those French airstrikes aimed at destroying capability, disabling, dislodging, and denying sanctuary to the jihadist groups who now occupy an area the size of France.

The Islamists are firing online counterpropaganda salvos. They’re targeting Muslims again, they say. “We will destroy them in their dens.”

Abd al-Wadoud, leader of al-Qaida in the Islamist Maghreb, posting this message addressed to the president of France and African leaders who support French intervention.

ABD AL-WADOUD, Al-Qaida in the Islamist Maghreb (through translator): I direct my message to those who insist on this oppressive war. If you want peace and security, we welcome that. If you want war, we will fulfill your desire. The great SaharaDesert will be a graveyard for your soldiers.

JONATHAN MILLER: But Francois Hollande, the president of France, has taken a carefully calculated gamble that failure to stop the advancing jihadist forces in their tracks poses an even greater risk: the creation of yet another haven for Islamist insurgents, this time not so far from Europe.

This is a propaganda video filmed by one of the three main jihadi groups, Ansar Dine. A French presidential aide has admitted they’re well-trained, well-armed with sophisticated weapons looted from Libya by Tuareg rebels who had been fighting with Gadhafi.

LAURENT FABIUS, French foreign minister (through translator): As far as the direct implication of France is concerned, it’s a matter of weeks. After we provide support, we have no intention of staying long-term.

JONATHAN MILLER: The Islamists’ destruction of the Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu and their administering Sharia punishments, floggings and public amputations, have scared secular Malians. And they now want urgent help to kick the jihadis out.

Even the Tuareg fighters who started the rebellion only to be overrun by the Islamists themselves say they support French intervention. And now that help has arrived.