THE sudden escalation of fighting in Mali and the involvement of many Nato states, with France leading, has focused world attention on West Africa. It is not just the situation in the former French colony that has prompted Western European reaction; the 41 foreigners taken hostage — and some reportedly killed — by Algerian militants include nationals from a number of European countries. Fierce fighting is taking place in northern Mali, where local militants, joined by sympathisers from other countries, have been challenging Bamako’s writ, running a parallel government, destroying the country’s cultural heritage and terrorising the people. The intensity of French air strikes, followed by a ground assault helped by Malian forces to take rebel-held Diabaly, show the militants’ tenacity and strength. Observers feel Mali could sink into a long civil war or face a Somalia-like break-up, unless French, Malian and regional forces gain a quick victory.

With Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb gaining strength, the West African region could become a powerful centre of Islamist insurgency. Those now trekking to Mali are immigrants rendered jobless after the end of the Qadhafi regime, fighters from Algeria and those loyal to Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement. Europe’s concern is that this large minerals-rich region could become a base of operation for Al Qaeda-led militants. The real losers, however, are the Malian people, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled their homes in the northern area to escape Ansar Dine’s atrocities. As the militants’ behaviour elsewhere in the world shows, it is their own people whom they persecute and turn into their enemy because of the harshness of their interpretation of religion. However, depending upon how the French conduct the war, collateral damage from air strikes could turn the people against foreign involvement, leaving them between a rock and a hard place.

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