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France Begins New Anti-Islamist Sweep in Mali
French soldiers in Mali have begun a major anti-insurgent sweep with Malian forces and United Nations peacekeepers, the Defense Ministry said on Thursday, calling it the largest operation to counteract a revival of Islamist militant activity since France intervened early this year.
Col. Gilles Jaron, a French military spokesman, said the operation, named Hydra, had long been planned and was intended to thwart "a resurgence of terrorist movements." He did not specify precisely when the operation had begun.
The large number of French troops now actively fighting the insurgents in Mali has raised questions about whether France, the former colonial power, would be able to reduce the number of soldiers there from 3,000 to 1,200 by the end of the year as planned.
The contested area, known as the Niger Loop, is in the northeast part of the country and includes the cities of Gao and Timbuktu. Islamist militants have been struggling to regain control in that area since French forces scattered them last winter.
France sent troops to Mali in January after the Islamists started advancing south toward the capital, Bamako.
The operation was announced a day after insurgents carried out a suicide bombing at a military checkpoint that killed at least two Chadian members of a United Nations peacekeeping force, which was authorized by the Security Council in April and is composed of soldiers from other African states. United Nations officials said the attack underscored the fragile stability in the country.
Also on Thursday, French news services reported that a team that included a former French military official went to the Sahel region of Mali to try to accelerate negotiations to release six French hostages, who are believed to have been captured by militants tied to Al Qaeda in 2010. The Foreign Ministry refused to comment on any hostage negotiations.
[Source: By Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, 24Oct13]
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