Bamako, Feb 19: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has described the fight against Islamic militancy as a "battle against barbarity" as he visited Mali, where France has had troops tackling rebels and jihadist groups since 2013.
The country's vast northern stretches continue to be beset by violence having fallen under the control of Tuareg-led rebels and jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.
The Islamists sidelined the Tuareg to take sole control, and although they were largely ousted by a French-led military operation in January 2013, extremist groups still pose a threat. "Today, reconciliation is in progress," said Valls yesterday, who visited Bamako accompanied by defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, referring to the peace accord signed by the government and the Tuareg rebels last year.
"Liberty must be defended. France is fully engaged. It's in essence a battle of humanity against barbarity," Valls said, speaking to members of the French community after meeting with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Although Mali has concluded a landmark peace agreement between the government and Tuareg-led rebels, jihadist violence has intensified on the ground and the management of the transition to peace has been criticised by the international community.
Today, Valls will visit Gao, the largest city in Mali's troubled north, to meet with French troops stationed there as part of the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane. Barkhane comprises at least 3,500 soldiers deployed across five countries (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso) with a mandate to combat jihadist insurgencies in the region.
Valls will spend two days in Mali and will then fly to Burkina Faso, both of which have been scarred by recent jihadist attacks. A November attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali's capital, Bamako, left 20 people dead, while in January, gunmen killed 30 people at a top hotel in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou, an assault claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Valls is also due to meet the chief of the UN force, known as MINUSMA, today, just days after a jihadist attack on its base killed seven Guinean peacekeepers, as well as the head of an EU military training mission in the country.