Roundup on Reported Battles Around Mopti, Mali

Since Monday, there have been reports of fighting in Mali around Mopti (map), Sevare (map), Konna (map), and Gnimignama (map, possibly inaccurate) between the Malian army and fighters from the Islamist coalition that includes Ansar al Din. These reports suggest an organized push southward by Ansar al Din and its allies. I had hoped to write an analysis of these events for today, but the situation remains too murky for that in my view. As the journalist Peter Tinti remarked on Twitter yesterday, in a comment that eloquently characterizes the reaction to many unfolding news stories, “Lots of people buy account X, others Y, all are peddling educated guesses and calling them certainty.” So instead of aiming at certainty I’ve rounded up some relevant stories that give a partial picture of the competing accounts.

  • BBC: “The army used artillery [on Tuesday] against the Islamist fighters in the village of Gnimignama, 30km (19 miles) from army positions, according to army sources.”
  • Al Jazeera: “Rebel fighters in Mali have captured at least 12 government soldiers along with their vehicle and equipment, reports say. The incident on Monday took place during a government patrol outside the town of Kona and near the city of Mopti, as fears rise that the rebels, who seized vast swathes of Mali’s north, are moving increasingly closer to areas under government control.”
  • Reuters has a brief quotation from the Malian Ministry of Defense, saying, “The armed forces have driven off this attempted attack.”
  • WSJ: “The Islamist rebels on Tuesday took new positions near the outskirts of a Niger River trading town that marks the south’s last outpost under government control, Mali’s army spokesman Lt. Col. Idrissa Traore said. The rebels entered the area around the sparsely populated town, Mopti, on Monday, he said.”
  • Al Akhbar (Arabic) describes an Islamist attack on a Malian military unit and says, “Prominent leaders from Al Qa’ida are taking leadership of the ongoing military operations at present.”
  • ANI (Arabic): “The Malian Army Fires Warning Shots in Konna.”
  • Al Akhbar (French): Islamists attempted “to take control of the airport situated around twenty kilometers from the entrance to [Mopti]…the international airport of Mopti could serve as a forward base for African forces in case of intervention in northern Mali.”
  • Sahara Medias (Arabic, from Monday) on fighting in Konna between Ansar al Din and the Malian army “without losses.”

Also of interest is an IRIN report from Sevare published January 3.

For updates I recommend following Bate FelixBaba AhmedPeter TintiAndrew LebovichHannah Armstrong, Baki 7our MansourTommy MilesPhil Paoletta, and Dr. Susanna Wing on Twitter.

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19 thoughts on “Roundup on Reported Battles Around Mopti, Mali

  1. That might not have been a good idea. Currently the best that thing for the groups in the north is the horrible disunity of the supposed leaders in the south. I can understand wanting to preemptively prevent an AU force from using the airport but if this makes the Mali leaders more united it might be worse in the long run.

      • New news. Apparently the chairman of the African Union has called for NATO intervention.

        While I’m irritated that the A.U. can’t make up its mind about NATO and interventions in Africa this does say what at least some leaders think of the situation, specifically that they want something done now and they don’t think the leaders of Mali or the leaders of ECOWAS are able to do it. While it seems incredibly unlikely that the U.S. and U.K. (the other two big pushers of NATO) would send more than a hundred soldiers at the absolute most, a French intervention might be imminent.

        It’ll be fascinating to see how Mali elites evolve from this situation. Normally I’d be sure it would lead to a consolidated military coup with strong military unity we’ve normally seen those in general-led coups, not in low-level-coups. Will the military splinter just as the civilians have splintered? Will this turn into a personality-driven dictatorship where, after Sanago’s death or removal, his system falls like Gaddafi’s did?

  2. It’s still my impression that the Islamists have no genuine intention of advancing to Bamako. Southward movements seem to represent anything except a full-blown offensive: skirmishes and feeler battles, gradual encroachment and entrenching the line between north and south. Mopti is obviously located at a strategic position in the delta, and marks the government’s northern limit, so it makes for a natural target. The Islamists will seek to draw their first battle lines below their northern positions, in order to create a buffer zone to fall back into. A true push south, on the other hand, would be suicidal – perhaps this will come to pass in a conflict as foggy as Mali.

    As for Paris, Washington and the rest of NATO, their air/ground forces will likely deploy later than any date previously announced – or else we won’t know until they have after deployed.

    • This idea that they are seeking to create a buffer zone, or that they are trying to take strategic positions that external forces might use later, makes a lot of sense to me. Some news sources have also said that the islamists are conducting a reprisal for the killing of the Mauritanian preachers in the fall.

  3. Pingback: Mali Islamists Make Gains, Government Calls for Help | World News Curator

  4. Unfortunately, we had to evacuate our staff through Burkina Faso. Staff were feeling very nervous.
    As James said, they do not seem to have a clear strategy. If they had one, they would have been in Koro by now; and they would have try to win the hearts of the population. What you see from the Malian Army in Koro and Bandiagara is a very pitiful.
    I also want to warn people not to trust too much what you read in the news. We talk a lot about fierce Islamist fighters…well there are fierce because the Army is incompetent. As a former soldier, I saw a few “fierce fighters” in Douentza and Gao but any competent and well trained military can easily take them. Sadly, the top brass in the Malian Army is useless and incompetent.

    Thanks for your posting Alex

  5. More on Mali, France has declared willingness to intervene if authorized by the U.N. Security Council and if the rebels* keep moving towards Mopti. Currently people are mentioning air strikes but considering that the U.K. and France needed far more American support in Libya they may also need soldiers on the ground**.

    *Do they even deserve that title anymore if they control more than half the nation?
    **It’s additionally possible that either France has secured American support or France is trying to pressure America to support it by raising the specter of how poor it would look for NATO/how emboldened the rebels would be if France failed to even protect one town.

  6. According to the BBC, the Malian army reports that French, Nigerian, and Senegalese troops are already in Mali, and the French confirm they have carried out an airstrike. Earlier reports said “Western looking” (= French?) troops were seen in Mopti.

      • Yep, it’s confirmed that they’re French. It isn’t clear if the French soldiers there are conducting their own operations, whether they’re working with Mali units or if they’re providing mostly support. It also isn’t clear yet whether the French air force is launching any strikes. What is clear is that France was unnerved enough by northern advances that it decided to intervene well before any ECOWAS mission was in place. I don’t know what views the people of northern Mali have of France but I’d say that the rebels appear to have made a strategic error in those attacks. Before this there was clear divisions between the U.S. and France over what to do, now both the U.K. and U.S. are at least vocally supporting France. We’ll see what happens in Mali and ECOWAS as the months go by.

  7. The Islamists have cut themselves by closing AU and NATO ranks, and speeding up their decision-making, when they could have fortified the whole year along the divide. At the same time acceleration is a blessing and curse for the international community. The political and military conditions for any offensive action still don’t exist, so everything until then is defensive in nature. Except the Islamists can afford to leave Konna alone and attack elsewhere, more Western reinforcements become necessary and more targets are created. What was supposed to be a controlled buildup could quickly spiral out of control into guerrilla warfare – the Islamists, for better and worse, are forcing NATO to react.

    There must be U.S. promises in order for Paris to make the initial move, as the Obama administration hopes to use France as the face of Mali’s intervention, and Hollande would never talk as tough as he did today without backup. Algeria’s reaction should be interesting for this reason.

    • Personally I think that the Islamist militants might have done better by spending their time trying to make themselves a genuinely better alternative to the Mali government and secular separatists. However it’s possible that this was done in an effort to force the people in northern Mali to make a choice. The rebels or the southern government. Of course it’s also entirely possible that they horribly miscalculated and had no idea that this would trigger a French intervention. Reading the other side’s moves is always hard, even decades later with plenty of documents.

      In general what is it with France and its relative ease to intervene in former colonies? The U.S. and U.K. tend to have decent relationships and occasionally defense agreements with former colonies but I don’t think they can move around as easily as France can.

      • Or the Islamists could have expected from the start that the majority wouldn’t accept their version of government, and chose to spend their time elsewhere. Not a well-planned insurgency from a non-military angle, but Mali was never a nationalist struggle for them – and only partially for Ansar Dine. However as a general rule, I would caution against underestimating asymmetric soldiers of any type, no matter how weak in appearance or reality. France is currently putting out some disturbing information to the contrary.

      • If things are bad, have a history of being bad and a group appears promising security and law people often go over to them or at least don’t fight back.
        Of course not seeing the war in Mali as a nationalist one is a strategic misstep in my opinion. Historically the groups that have kept focused on national struggles have had greater success than the ones that went for great, transnational struggles.

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