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Paris (AFP) Jan 20, 2013
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
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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