Mali Reacts To Al-Qaeda Advances

Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about the ongoing conflict in Mali. The French military launched an offensive to reverse advances made by al-Qaeda linked rebels who gained control of northern Mali.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, if saving money is one of your new year's resolutions, then our next guest will probably interest you. He says saving is not just about what you buy, but when you buy. He's written a book called "Buy Shoes on Wednesday and Tweet at 4:00" - and we'll hear from him in just a few minutes.

But first we turn to Mali. It's a West African nation at the edge of the Sahara known for centuries as a center of learning and education, as well as culture, especially its music, but that is all in turmoil. Al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups captured a large slice of territory in the north of the country last year. The rebels have imposed strict Islamic law on the areas they control. They've destroyed historic Sufi Muslim saints' tombs in fabled cities like Timbuktu and driven many of the area's acclaimed musicians out of the country. Now they're trying to seize parts of the south, which is where the capital is located.

On Friday, France, the former colonial power in Mali, launched an offensive to drive back the rebel advance at the invitation of the Malian government. French fighter jets and attack helicopters have been pounding rebel strongholds, but the determined and mobile insurgents have still managed to grab more territory. Here to talk about this fast moving story is NPR's Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

Welcome back, Ofeibea. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

MARTIN: I want to note that on Monday the United Nations Security Council unanimously backed France's military intervention and it appears that African troops will join Malian and French forces. How significant is this?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's all quite unexpected, Michel, because it has happened so quickly, but really, Africa and the former colonial power, France, the U.S. and others, were totally overtaken by events when these al-Qaida-linked Islamists decided that they would try to push towards the capital, Bamako, in government-held Southern Mali.

The French are saying that is their justification at the invitation of Mali's president, Dioncounda Traore, the interim president. At his request, they decided they had to step in, and the French president, the foreign minister, the ambassador at the U.N. will tell you, because not only was the stability and security of Mali threatened, but that of the entire West African and Sahel region, and also further afield, because they feel that Mali is on the doorstep of Europe and if the Islamists have already established, as many believe, a haven for terrorists and drug traffickers, people traffickers and all sorts of trafficking in the north, which is a poorly policed area and under rebel control since April last year, this could be a huge problem, not only for Africa but for the world.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you to expand on that - why the Islamists have targeted that particular area. Why did they establish a stronghold there and what is understood to be their broader intention?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, first of all, Michel, the area - it's the desert northern territory, about the size of Texas or Spain, so it's huge, hard to police at the best of times. But if we look back to a year ago, there was a rebellion initially by Tuareg fighters, many of whom we are told had returned from Libya after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, heavily armed. They wanted independence for what they called their region, but their rebellion was soon hijacked by Islamists who they'd invited to fight with them who were better armed, better organized, more mobile, more versatile, and, as we see, have managed to take over.

They've imposed harsh Sharia law in the region, amputating people's limbs for alleged crimes, women have to cover up. As you said in your introduction, music is now forbidden, even watching television in some instances. Many Malians say this is not the - this is not Mali. Yes, we're 95-odd percent Muslim, but this is not real Islam. You people have come to try and hoodwink us, and what you're interested is in money and trafficking, and many people in the North have said drive them out.

So that is the background. Why they should have chosen now to try and push south when they've held the north for nine months is questionable, but there's been a sort of lull, and you know, to-ing and fro-ing, diplomatic political negotiations and this and that, and they thought perhaps now was the time to strike whilst everybody was not quite ready and the French say, well, it's just as well that they have forces at different bases in Africa and were able to step in when requested.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is giving us an update on fast-moving events in Mali, where Islamist rebels who've been holding territory in the north have been advancing toward the south. There have been a number of developments there, including a French intervention and the U.N. Security Council has now backed that French intervention.

Ofeibea, I know it's such a difficult thing to assess, but do you have any sense of where popular opinion lies about all this?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, Michel, this is not hard to assess at all. There was absolute jubilation on the streets of the capital, Bamako. Many, many Malians say bravo to the French. Many people are saying, yes, France has been meddlesome in the past in its former colonies, but on this occasion we welcome their decisive military intervention because it has saved Mali. And it's not only Malians saying that. Many other Africans too.

The problem is, how long is this going to last? African troops are meant to be commanding and leading this operation to try and dislodge the Islamists from the North. This was supposed to happen in the fall, in September or so, because Mali's demoralized, dispirited army was meant to be trained up again by the Americans, the Europeans and others, but suddenly everybody is facing a fait accompli because the rebels have tried to push South.

So everybody is going to have to make do, but of course the question is, how is it all going to work out? Because the Islamists in the North know their territory. They are - you know, they know the desert. What about the other African troops from other parts of the continent? They don't know the terrain. What about the French? So how is this going to work out? Lots of unknowns.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, Ofeibea, how concerned are the other regional countries bordering the country that this insurgency is indeed going to spread?

QUIST-ARCTON: Hugely concerned. And they have been, not just in the year since the rebellion in Mali, but in knowing that foreigners and even Africans are being kidnapped in the North and then huge ransoms being asked for their release - the fact that there was such lawlessness in that area of Mali. So not only is West Africa worried, but Europe, the U.S. and anyone who feels that there is a terrorist threat and that Mali has become the center and perhaps the hub for it in Northwest Africa wants to see this problem resolved - soon.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's Africa correspondent. She's heading to Mali. She joined us from her base in Senegal. Ofeibea, thank you so much for joining us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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