By JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — France will move surveillance drones to West Africa and is holding secretive talks with U.S. officials in Paris this week as it seeks to steer international military action to help Mali's feeble government win back the northern part of the country from al-Qaida-linked rebels, The Associated Press has learned.
France and the United Nations insist any invasion of Mali's north must be led by African troops. But France, which has six hostages in Mali and has citizens who have joined al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, is playing an increasing role behind the scenes.
Many in the West fear that northeast Mali and the arid Sahel region could become the new Afghanistan, a no-man's-land where extremists can train, impose hardline Islamic law and plot terror attacks abroad. And France, former colonial ruler to countries across the Sahel, is a prime target.
"This is actually a major threat — to French interests in the region, and to France itself," said Francois Heisbourg, an expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a partially state-funded think tank in Paris. "This is like Afghanistan 1996. This is like when Bin Laden found a place that was larger than France in which he could organize training camps, in which he could provide stable preparations for organizing far-flung terror attacks."
France is turning its attention to the Sahel just as it is accelerating its pullout of combat troops from Afghanistan ahead of other NATO allies.
A French defense official said Monday that France plans to move two surveillance drones to western Africa from Afghanistan by year-end, though he did not provide details. France is also reported to have special forces in the region around Mali, and to have contracted out surveillance of Mali to a private company.
Top-level American and French military leaders and diplomats, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, began two days of talks in Paris on Monday on intelligence-gathering and security in the Sahel region, including Mali, diplomats from both sides told the AP.
The defense official and diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about the activities.
The Paris meetings follow a U.N. Security Council resolution that gives Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about a month to help Malian authorities devise a plan to regain control of the north. And on Friday, African leaders met in Bamako, Mali's capital, to prepare a plan for a military intervention in the north, which was seized under the cover of a coup d'etat six months ago.
The United States is partnering with France, which has airpower and hundreds of troops across western Africa — in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon, French and U.S. officials said. The United States has no full-time military presence in Africa, but from time to time sends trainers or other advisers on specific missions, according to Africom, the U.S. military command for Africa based in Stuttgart, Germany.
The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador has fanned an increasing American awareness of the terror threat in the Sahel.
The United States sees France as a key player in Mali, and the French defense official said the U.S. "has conferred to us the role of leader" in the crisis.
Other Western powers are increasingly worried about a lawless Mali.
On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would be prepared to take part in a European mission to train and provide logistical support for Malian security forces. European Union members are considering a noncombat training mission to help the interim Malian government.
"Free democratic states cannot accept international terrorism gaining a safe refuge in the north of the country," Merkel told a German military conference near Berlin.
Yet despite the clear French interest in a Mali campaign, French officials don't want to be seen as too aggressive in helping Mali fight AQIM and its allies — the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO, and Ansar Dine, which now controls the famed Malian city of Timbuktu.
French President Francois Hollande, his popularity flailing just five months since he took office, faces a variety of challenges.