SEGOU, Mali — Malian and French forces were reported in control of two important central Malian towns on Tuesday after the French Defense Ministry said they recaptured them on Monday, pushing back an advance by Islamist militants who have overrun the country’s northern half.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defense minister, hailed the advance on Monday as “a clear military success for the government in Bamako and for French forces intervening in support of these operations.”
The developments in Diabaly, about 275 miles north of Bamako, and Douentza, on the eastern bank of the Niger River, some 300 miles to the north-east of the Malian capital, represented a reassertion of government control in areas where a lightning strike by Islamist forces last week prompted France to intervene, initially with air strikes to halt the rebel advance.
Wherefore Mali? It's an interesting situation: Mali offers no obvious strategic advantage to anyone, in truth. It's landlocked, and while it does offer access to both the Niger and Senegal rivers, there's not much to be done there in terms of trade or commerce. Mali's economy relies largely on agriculture and fishing and its two largest mineral exports are gold and salt.
Not to short shrift gold, of course.
This whole mess started when a separatist movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, occupied a presidential palace in the capital city of Bamako. Shortly after, Islamist forces supposedly aligned with Al Qaeda (there's some dispute there) overpowered the NMLA and while they allowed the president to resume his office, they have not relinquished power.
The Azawadians are a faction of the Tuareg tribe, who last made the news when they allied with Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and then were driven out of their homes as the rebellion flourished. Amadou Sanogo, the general at the head of the Azawadian forces, requested the French intervene in the conflict.
The effect of this was seen in next-door Algeria, as Islamists seized a gas field and captured dozens of hostages. At last report, 37 died in the government's successful attempt to retake the facility.
This entire incident, Mali and Algeria, speak to the formation of Africa's fate for the century: a struggle between nativist Africans and the North Africa Muslims. This seems to be spreading into the interior of the continent now, having been fought along the north and east coasts already with neither side having a clear victory.
Strategically, this is subtly important: Niger and Burkina Faso also have deposits of gold, and Niger famously has yellowcake uranium. They are also two countries in Africa who do not do the plurality of their trading with China.