Mali Ground War Battles Militant Islamists

French and Malian troops are directly engaging the rebels in combat. For an update on how the fighting is going, Renee Montagne talks to Sudarsan Raghavan, a correspondent for The Washington Post, who is covering events from the capital Bamako.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In West Africa, the push to prevent militant Islamists from expanding beyond their base in northern Mali is shifting into a ground war. French and Malian troops are now directly engaging al-Qaida linked rebels in combat. They've surrounded a desert village that jihadists overran when they began pushing south toward Mali's capital. This escalates the battle that began last week, when France sent in fighter jets to attack the rebels.

To learn more, we're joined by Sudarsan Raghavan. He's a Washington Post correspondent covering the events from the capital, Bamako.

Good morning.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Good morning. Good to be with you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So tell us what is happening now.

RAGHAVAN: Well, what's happening now is that the battle has come down towards - into central Mali in the basic focus on the village of Diabaly, where the Islamists essentially have taken over the village. And what we're seeing now is this ground confrontation happening between the Islamists and French forces and Malian troops.

Even as we speak, this morning I spoke to a Malian colonel who told me that there are infantry units (unintelligible) being sent towards the village. So overall we're definitely in a new phase of the war which is ground operations.

MONTAGNE: And also, I gather, Nigerian troops are readying to move across the border into Mali. How does all of this change the fight - I mean from a military standpoint, but also a regional and international one?

RAGHAVAN: Well, a couple of months ago basically the U.N. Security Council approved a proposal by Mali's neighbors to send 3,000 troops to essentially liberate northern Mali. What we're seeing now with this surprise military assaults by the French is that everyone is trying to speed things up, to speed up the deployment. So Mali's neighbors are now pledging to send troops much sooner than expected. It was supposed to take nearly - several more months before these troops would actually arrive.

But Mali's neighbors are now trying to speed up their deployment, send troops in quickly in order to have this seen as an African operation rather than a French operation.

MONTAGNE: And this escalation seems to be having broader effects. There's a hostage situation going on now in Algeria, which reports the hostage takers are demanding an end to the French incursion in Mali. What do you know about this?

RAGHAVAN: Yes, that's correct. I mean this is the biggest fear for the United States and its allies, Western allies, is that a conflict in northern Mali could spill across borders and essentially spread across the vast lawless stretches of desert in several different countries.

And particularly, I mean I think the fear certainly amongst the U.S. officials is not that these militants can target the United States as the al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen have done, but rather they're going to target Western interests. Events like what happened yesterday in the Algeria, taking hostages of Americans or Europeans or French, and so on, that's sort of the big concern here.

And I think that's certainly one reason why you're seeing a bit of a reluctance, a hesitancy, for the U.S. and other European countries to engage, to fully support France in this, in their military campaigns because, you know, they fear backlash that could affect American and Western interests in this region and perhaps even beyond.

MONTAGNE: All right, well, thank you very much.

RAGHAVAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Sudarsan Raghavan from The Washington Post, speaking to us from Bamako, the capital of Mali.

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