Mali conflict may spread across region after militant attack on Algerian gas field

The attack on the Algerian gas field has raised fears of the conflict in Mali becoming an international battle bleeding across the porous borders of the Sahel and Sahara region.

The hostage-taking not only sparked concerns for the global ramifications of the Mali problem, it also spelled out the complexities of the unrest in the Sahel: a tangled mix of communal tensions, economic struggle, desertification, poverty, criminality, kidnapping and smuggling, which shifts seamlessly across borders.

With six days of French airstrikes failing to erode the Islamist gains in Mali, French special forces on January 15, 2013 prepared to launch a land assault around Diabaly, 450 km from the capital. France’s aim is to secure the vast desert area seized in 2012 by an Islamist alliance, which combines al-Qaeda’s north African wing, AQIM, with Mali’s home-grown Movement for Oneness and Jihad in west Africa (Mojwa) and Ansar Dine rebel groups. The French army warned yesterday that the extremists, with a history of taking human shields, would be willing to hide behind civilians and France would do its utmost to make sure civilians were not wrongly targeted. “When in doubt, we will not fire,” said France’s military chief of staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud.

But the major turn of events came across the border in southern Algeria, with the hostage drama at a BP oilfield. Attacks on oil-rich Algeria’s hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite the country’s decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in the north.

Jon Marks, associate fellow at Chatham House, said: “The attack is remarkable for a number of reasons. If you look at Algeria’s conflict of 1990s, out of which the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb sprang, the major oil and gas fields of the deep south, a strategic interest to Europe, were not attacked. Even in Algeria’s bloody history, this is the first time there has been major attack on a hydrocarbon facility. It shows the degree to which the events in Mali are an international Sahel and Sahara-wide issue. These groups are international: including Malians, people who came from the Libya conflict, but also from Algeria and Mauritania.” He said the attack showed how deep-rooted those groups were. “The groups we are now calling AQIM, that the French military are targeting, have roots going back decades in the region. They have been involved in cigarette smuggling, electronic goods smuggling, guns, drugs, a lot of criminality.” He described it as a potent “interface” where criminality meets politics in an area that is “more and more desperate”.

A man claiming to be a spokesman for the militants told BBC Arabic on Wednesday night the hostages would be killed if Algerian troops attempted to rescue them. “Storming the gas complex would be easy for the Algerian military, but the outcome of such an operation would be disastrous,” he warned.

France’s sudden military intervention in Mali last week was defined by Paris as a “war against terrorism”. They described a move to stop Islamists moving south, toppling Mali’s weak interim power, which might have disintegrated into a jihadist state that would be a major international threat. Angela Merkel echoed on Wednesday that “terrorism in Mali is a threat to Europe”.

A poll on Wednesday found 64% of French people felt the Mali intervention would increase the risk of a terrorist attack on home soil, and armed patrols were in force at spots such as the Eiffel tower.

Unlike Algerian terrorist operations in the 1990s, AQIM has never struck on French soil. But the militant groups that seized control of northern Mali had targeted foreigners for years on their own turf. They already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats, seized several years ago. AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars from kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures for ransom, as well as foreigners.

In Somalia, rebels said on Wednesday that they would kill a French intelligence agent, Denis Allex, they are holding hostage, accusing France of persecuting Muslims and pointing to the French involvement in Mali.

The French president, Francois Hollande, was at pains once again to say France had “no interest” in Mali and was just “serving peace”. Mr. Hollande emphasised his promise to break with murky post-colonial relations of the past.

Mali itself represents small economic trading within the wider context of French economic interests in west Africa, but Mali’s neighbours in the region are a different matter. These hold important energy interests, first in Niger, whose uranium services one third of French nuclear power stations. On another border, Algeria — Africa’s biggest country and France’s biggest African economic partner — is a major exporter of oil and gas to Europe.

The attack on the BP field has thrown Algeria’s role in Mali into the spotlight. Algeria had been a major opponent of military intervention in Mali. For a long time, it had a policy of non-intervention in neighbours. It has now opened its airspace to the French airforce, a historic event, and vowed to secure its vast desert border with Mali — an undertaking commentators say is almost impossible. Although an ally of the US and France in fighting terrorism for years, Algeria has also been accused by some of playing a double game in the desert Sahel region where Islamist groups have flourished since Algeria’s bloody war of independence. The regime’s involvement in Mali will now become much more of a focus, as the conflict looks likely to be drawn out.

— © Guardian News Service

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