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Algeria will decide 'in its interests' on airspace: minister
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Jan 20, 2013

French hostages in Sahel 'are alive': defence minister
Paris (AFP) Jan 20, 2013 - Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday that seven French citizens taken hostage by Islamist militants in Africa's Sahel region in recent years were alive.

"They are alive," Le Drian said on France 5 television, adding there had been "contacts with the hostage-takers" holding the French citizens abducted in Mali and Niger.

Concerns about the fate of the hostages have been raised since France began its military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali earlier this month.

"The hostages' families are suffering, anguished, but they know that when you are a hostage, there is a risk to your life," Le Drian said, defending France's intervention by saying it was "to avoid yet another hostage, Mali".

He said France had strengthened security at various industrial sites in the Sahel region in the wake of the Mali intervention and the deadly hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria.

The French hostages include four men seized by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) in a mining town in northern Niger in 2010, two male geologists captured in northeastern Mali in 2011 and another man taken in November in the country's west.

Earlier on Sunday, after meeting with family members of the hostages, President Francois Hollande said France was making constant efforts to secure their freedom.

Hollande "assured them of the government's constant action to obtain the freedom of their loved ones," his office said in a statement.

"France is working on this with determination and responsibility and no lead is being ignored or set aside," the statement said.

Hollande also promised to keep the families informed and to continue to provide them with support.

US military aircraft evacuates hostages from Algeria
Washington (AFP) Jan 18, 2013 - A US military aircraft has evacuated some of the foreign hostages freed from an Algerian gas plant for medical treatment, a defense official said Friday.

"We've confirmed this morning there was a C-130 that left with some medical patients on the flight. There were no Americans on that flight," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

The official could not say how many passengers were flown out of Algeria, details of their nationalities or their injuries.

The Pentagon plans a second medical evacuation using a C-17 transport plane but the number of passengers or nationalities was uncertain, he added.

The fate of foreign hostages held at the remote Algerian gas plant remained unclear Friday, with their Islamist captors demanding a prisoner swap and an end to a French military intervention in Mali.

The Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen, cited by Mauritania's ANI news agency, said they still held seven foreigners at the site deep in the Sahara desert near the border with Libya.

An Algerian security official put their number at 10.

An Algerian military assault to rescue the hostages from the site has come under mounting international criticism.

An Algerian security official said the operation left 12 hostages dead as well as 18 kidnappers.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a Frenchman had been killed in the operation.

US officials said contradictory reports made it difficult to confirm the American casualty toll from the hostage crisis.

Algeria will authorise the continued use of its airspace for France's military intervention in Mali based on its own interests, Communications Minister Mohammed Said said on Sunday.

"This is an issue that will be addressed in accordance with the supreme interests of Algeria," the minister said on France 24 television.

"In this kind of situation, national interest takes precedence and it is the country's supreme authorities who will judge whether to authorise or not authorise such action," he said.

France said on January 13 that Algeria had granted it vital access to its airspace for overflights by fighter jets and supply planes.

France launched a military intervention earlier this month in support of Malian forces fighting Islamist militants who had seized the north of the country.

The minister said the conflict in Mali was a "war on Algeria's doorstep".

Following the deadly hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant by militants claiming retaliation for France's intervention, Said also said the country was strengthening security at its industrial sites.

"The securing of all oil and gas sites in Algeria is a permanent concern of the Algerian authorities," he said. "This new event will be used by security services to even better secure all facilities and our border."

French special forces a lifeline for embattled Mali soldiers
Markala, Mali (AFP) Jan 19, 2013 - Fighting on the front in Mali to halt a swoop by Islamists descending from the north, French Special Forces have been a lifeline for the country's ill-equipped and demoralised soldiers.

The French military intervention, sparked by the fall of the central town of Konna to Al-Qaeda linked militants over a week ago, saw hundreds of elite, war-hardened soldiers deployed in the west African country on a war footing.

Initially restricted to air power, the French mission codenamed Serval, was soon broadened to include a ground offensive.

A French helicopter pilot died on the very day that Paris launched its operations in the former colony, but the French presence has been a tremendous shot in the arm for the Malian forces.

"When the first French troops arrived, everything changed," said Captain Cheichne Konate. "They were formidable."

"They helped us to reconstitute the defence formations. The men who had left returned. Without them it would be over for us," he said.

The Malian army proved no match for Tuareg separatist rebels -- many of whom had fought for Moamer Kadhafi in Libya -- who took them by surprise when they relaunched a decades-old rebellion in January last year.

As anger rose over their defeats, a group of soldiers overthrew the government in Bamako in a disastrous coup which only made it easier for the Tuareg and their new Islamist allies to seize the vast arid north.

But the Tuareg desert nomads, whose plans for independence were of no interest to the extremists seeking to impose sharia law on the north, were quickly chased out by Islamist fighters who then set out to extend their reach southward.

"To fight a war, you need three essentials: weapons, fighters and cash," Time magazine wrote, something the Islamists have in rich supply.

"Clearly, the Malian army does not have the means to wage this war alone," added Malian defence specialist Kissima Gakou.

A French Special Forces member affirmed this, speaking in the frontline area of Markala, where a strategic bridge is located.

"There are just a handful of brave soldiers who fight for half-an-hour when the bearded ones attack before fleeing," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity and referring to the jihadists.

The French air raids not only halted the progress of the extremists deeper into the government-controlled south but also destroyed most of their bases and ammunition depots.

And later when they launched a ground offensive, the French troops' tactics and superior weaponry also made a huge difference.

A retired French Special Forces officer said the deployment was a flashback to Afghanistan in 2001 when US special operations forces helped the Northern Alliance score stunning tactical victories against the Taliban.

Eric Denece, the head of the French Intelligence Centre think-tank, said the elite troops were also trained to "galvanise, train, supervise and accompany friendly forces in combat.

"Their presence comforts and makes the local army, which knows the terrain, much more efficient," he said.


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