France continues to ramp up its troop presence in Mali ahead of a massive assault on al Qaeda-linked forces, the Associated Press reports.
Roughly 2,500 French troops are expected to arrive in the coming days to reinforce the ongoing French aerial bombing campaign in Central Mali. French President Francois Hollande deployed these forces in an attempt to stop the Islamic insurgents, based in the northern Sahel region, from advancing south toward Bamako, the capital city.
For many in the region, the former colonial power's military might is a welcome relief to an uncertain future if groups like the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa—known as MUJAO and affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—seize more control.
"In West Africa, people are very happy about the decision of Francois Hollande," a French citizen based on the Mali-Burkina Faso border for three yeras tells U.S. News. The source, an expert in humanitarian issues in the region, spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the growing security concern in the region.
Radical Islamists have minimal support in Mali and neighboring countries, such as Burkina Faso and Senegal, the source says by E-mail, where they are viewed as gangsters, robbers and drug dealers using religion to justify criminal activity.
"This time it's not like before, when the French army was involved in many African countries," he says of France's colonial history. "This time, African people really appreciate French help. It was necessary to save Mali."
A MUJAO leader denounced the French incursion Monday and said the Islamist organization would retaliate.
"France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," said rebel leader Abou Darda, according to an AFP report.
The United Nations says it is concerned about a growing humanitarian crisis as a result of the fighting in recent days. Over 30,000 people have fled their homes since Friday, according to a U.N. report. The number of internally displaced persons now exceeds 200,000 after the government declared a state of emergency and France began its aerial campaign on Friday.
"Malians are very supportive of the intervention, at least in the initial stages, and see it as the only legitimate way that the territory in the north could be regained," says Tanya Bindra, a freelance photographer based in Senegal with experience covering Mali. Locals were skeptical of negotiations in recent months between the Economic Community of West African States and MUJAO she says in an E-mail to U.S. News.
The United Nations approved a plan for a military operation in Mali nine months from now, spearheaded by African troops. Hollande began the attack on rebel forces last week after deciding the U.N. approved response would be too late.
"Their take on Islam, specifically in the application of Sharia [law], is generally not compatible with how the majority of Malians practice religion," says Bindra.
(Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)
Malians see the French attack as justified, perhaps even a little late, says the French citizen who spoke with U.S. News.
"It seems like the Islamists are making a last stand before going back to their caves in the desert," he says. "The French attacks won't be enough to eliminate the Islamist threat in the Sahel region and survivors will try to hide themselves in the desert, in Algeria, Mauritania and in the north of Mali."
This kind of spillover remains a growing concern in the region. The U.S. Embassy in Mali issued an emergency message for U.S. citizens on Tuesday after Islamic extremists invaded the town of Diabali in the Segou region, just under 150 miles northeast of Bamako. It warns Americans to avoid the region, if possible.