*‘Morocco & Algeria opening skies to our planes,’ French official says, ‘is crucial mark of solidarity for our mission – which is really needed.’**
CNN Security Clearance, by Jill Dougherty (Washington, DC, Jan. 18, 2013) — In order for its offensive against Islamists in Mali to succeed, France needs the assistance of the United States and other countries, a French official told CNN.
“We really need the help of everybody and when countries such as Morocco and Algeria are opening their skies to our planes,” the official said. “That’s crucial because that’s a mark of full solidarity for our mission – which is needed, it’s really needed.”
Mali was one of the most successful democracies in Africa until last year, when a coup toppled the president and Islamists capitalized on the chaos by establishing themselves in the north. There, they imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law by banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also damaged Timbuktu’s historic tombs and shrines.
The International Criminal Court has launched a war crimes investigation amid reports that residents have been mutilated and killed for disobeying the Islamists. The United Nations has noted accounts of amputations, floggings and public executions such as the July stoning of a couple who had reportedly had an affair.
France unleashed a military offensive against the militants last week, a mission that President Francois Hollande says is designed to “destroy” the terrorist groups that have taken root in the northern part of the huge African nation.
The operation could last weeks or much longer, the French official said. Much will depend on the involvement of the international community.
The United States is navigating one tricky quandary: How does it help in the battle against the militants without violating its own policy? U.S. policy prohibits direct military aid to Mali because the fledgling government is a result of a coup.
No support can go to the Malian military directly until leaders are chosen through an election, said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman.
“We are not in a position to train the Malian military until we have democracy restored,” she said this week. “But we’re not precluded from assisting allies and partners in trying to restore security to that country.”
So far, the United States has only shared intelligence from satellites and intercepted signals with the French, defense officials said. The Pentagon is also considering sending refueling tankers so that French jets can fly longer, more sustained combat missions, according to the officials.
“We’ve had a number of requests for support from the French in support of their operation,” Nuland said in a State Department briefing Tuesday.
“They’ve asked for information sharing, they’ve asked for support with airlift, they’ve asked for support with aerial refueling. We are already providing information and we are looking hard today at the airlift question, helping them transport forces from France and from the area into the theater.”
The United States is training African forces being deployed. By this weekend, trainers will be on the ground in African nations that are contributing forces, the State Department said.
If the African troops are not well-equipped, motivated or need much more time to be deployed, that could affect the French mission.
France is sending 2,500 troops to Mali, from French military facilities in Africa and from France. Paris quickly deployed troops since it has permanent bases in Gabon and Djibouti.
It also has a few hundred troops in Ivory Coast as a result of the international peacekeeping mission two years ago. It has a permanent battalion of 800 to 1,000 in Chad.
A few hundred more will come directly from France.
“We want, and it’s in the interest of everybody, to get back to the track of the U.N. process and of the deployment of an African-led operation, which was the whole idea of the last resolution of the U.N. Security Council,” the French official said. “So we hope we will receive support from the African troops and others. But our troops will be there as long as necessary.”
France has requested assistance from the United States. The official said it is getting “full political support” from the White House and the U.S. State Department.
“We have very good cooperation in intelligence, and they just have announced that aircraft transport will be provided by the U.S. and, as far as I know, they are still considering the question of a refueling plan. So they are on board,” the official said.
“We are aware of their internal debates,” the official added, “and that’s understandable, but the discussions are ongoing all the time at all levels between France and the United States. So, so far, the cooperation is good.”
Leaders from other countries have offered troops or logistical support for the offensive.
A Canadian military transport plane departed for Mali on Tuesday, where it will transport equipment and personnel. Two British military transport aircraft have been assigned to help with the French troop deployment, but no British forces will be in a combat role.
The Nigerian army said it plans to deploy 900 soldiers within 10 days as part of a U.N.-mandated African force to fight the insurgents.
Events in Algeria could have an impact on Mali “one way or another,” the French official told CNN.
Algeria has been facing a civil war against Islamists for several years, and France has been trying to draw the world’s attention to that threat, the official said.
The Algeria hostage-taking crisis could lead some countries to conclude that the only answer is for Western and African countries, and even moderate Islamic countries, to unite to fight terrorism. Others, however, the official said, might conclude that it is too dangerous, that it is a “vicious cycle and maybe it is better not to intervene.”
A few years ago, there were a few hundred terrorists in southern Algeria, the official said, but now there are a few thousand. “We don’t want to see tens of thousands of those terrorists in the coming years.”
CNN’s Faith Karimi contributed to this report.