2,150 French Troops in Mali; Germany Balks at Aid

A French soldier secures a perimeter on the outskirts of Diabaly, Mali, about 320 miles north of the capital Bamako on Jan. 21, 2013. Photo: Jerome Delay
A French soldier secures a perimeter on the outskirts of Diabaly, Mali, about 320 miles north of the capital Bamako on Jan. 21, 2013. Photo: Jerome Delay

SEGOU, Mali - France says there are now about 1,000 African troops in Mali to take part in the military intervention to dislodge Islamic militants from power.

Col. Thierry Burkhard, the French military spokesman, says the soldiers come from Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Niger and Chad.

France has 2,150 forces in Mali, and has received logistical support from Western allies and intelligence from the United States.

But the French ultimately hope that West African soldiers will take the lead alongside Malian troops in securing the country, a former French colony.

Neighboring African countries are expected to contribute around 3,000 troops but concerns about the mission have delayed some from sending their promised troops.

France launched its operation Jan. 11, a day after the Islamists ventured south from their strongholds and seized a town.

Meanwhile, the Mali crisis is proving to be a test of Franco-German friendship.

Though French troops are on the ground fighting Islamist militants, Germany said it would not fly ammunition there to aid its European ally.

Germany's Defense Ministry confirmed a report Monday by Der Spiegel that Berlin has a "red card holder" stationed at a joint airbase in the Netherlands whose job is to make sure French arms aren't being loaded onto German planes.

The ministry described it as a routine procedure at the European Air Transport Command in Eindhoven, where France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have pooled some of their military air capacity. Germany has strict rules requiring parliamentary approval for military missions overseas.

Still, the move is a stark reminder of Germany's reluctance to be drawn into the conflict in Mali, even if it risks straining relations with its neighbor. Berlin took a similar approach two years ago when a French-led coalition sent air cover to help rebels topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya.

"I think this is perceived very ambivalently in France," said Sabine von Oppeln, an expert on French-German relations at Berlin's Free University.

On the one hand, France is wary of a German military resurgence even 68 years after the end of WWII, said von Oppeln. "On the other hand, they must be wondering how much solidarity they can expect from Germany, a country that does have considerable resources at its disposal."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande skirted the question of military support in Mali at a televised town hall meeting in Berlin on Monday, until pressed by a young French soldier in the audience.

"We're not so experienced in Africa as far as the military is concerned," Merkel replied cautiously, noting that Germany would consider "step by step whether we can do something or not."

"But of course we can't abandon each other, we're partners," she hastily added.

Last week, Germany promised to send two military aircraft to help transport African troops to the Malian capital of Bamako, which so far has been untouched by fighting. It will also provide (EURO)1 million ($1.3 million) for humanitarian aid in Mali where, according to the United Nations, fighting has displaced almost 380,000 people.

But unlike France, Germany has no strategic interests in resource-rich Mali. And for Merkel, whose agenda is filled with the eurozone crisis and upcoming national elections, Mali is an unwelcome distraction, said von Oppeln.

"It's typical for French-German diplomacy, not to strain the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty by publicly discussing the conflict in Mali," she said. "But I'd love to be a fly on the wall when President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel are talking in private."

The 1963 accord signed by former French President Charles de Gaulle and then-German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer marked a moment of reconciliation for the two countries that fought three wars in the space of 70 years.

Since then, the countries have cooperated closely on economic and cultural issues, and become the motor driving closer political integration in the European Union.

Official celebrations for the anniversary began Monday and continue Tuesday with a joint session of the French and German parliaments, followed by a gala concert.

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