Britain sends troops to Mali: five things you need to know

Jan 29, 2013

The UK is sending 330 military personnel to Mali to aid France's battle against jihadist militants. Why?

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BRITAIN is to send as many as 330 military personnel to Mali to support French forces battling Islamist fighters who have seized the northern part of the African state. The coalition government insists they will be training the Malian army not taking part in the fighting. Here are five things you need to know about the battle for control of Mali:

Where is it? Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa bordered by Algeria to the north, Niger to the east, Senegal to the west and Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire to the south. Mali's eight diverse regions range from desert in the north to less arid country bordering the Niger and Senegal rivers in the south. The country is Africa's third-largest producer of gold, but the economy is based mainly on fishing and agriculture and about half the population of 14.5 million live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.

What's been happening? The French took control of Mali in the late 19th century and made it part of French Sudan. It achieved independence in 1960, but in January last year several insurgent groups began fighting government troops for control of the northern part of Mali known as Azawad, which they had earmarked as a homeland for the Tuareg people. Some of the insurgents were Islamist militants and when they took control of Azawad they began to impose strict Sharia law. On 11 January this year, French PM François Hollande said he had agreed to a request from the government of Mali to send French troops to fight the Islamists.

Who are the Islamist fighters? The rebels are made up of three Jihadi Islamist groups, with links to the al-Qaeda "franchise". There have been claims by senior figures in Mali that the militants are receiving "outside military help", the Voice of Russia reports. The mayor of the city of Gao – which was captured, then freed by Mali government troops – accused "Qatar, among others" of sending cargo planes to rebel-controlled airports.

Why did the French go in? President Hollande believed that "the menace of a radical Islamic takeover was so imminent" that he had no choice but to intervene in Mali, writes the former Time-Life correspondent Barry Lando in a column for the Huffington Post. The French PM considers the action necessary to save "not just Mali, but all of Western Africa, and, the French now imply, Europe as well".

Why do the French need our help? Whitehall has said it is sending troops to Mali because the British government "fully supports" the French government's desire to "deny terrorists a safe haven in Mali". Former head of the British Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, told the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme he understood the decision to back France saying, "We cannot let states fail because we know from recent history that failed states just lead to really difficult circumstances, instability." But Jackson warned that the UK might face "protracted guerrilla warfare" if it were to escalate its involvement in Mali beyond a training role.

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