Paris, 16 January 2013
Q. – Can it be said, on the sixth day of the war, that the French army has the initiative in Mali, that their enemy, the radical Islamists, are being weakened, perhaps, disrupted?
THE MINISTER – When President Hollande decided last Friday to trigger the French intervention before it was too late, there was an operation, a heavy offensive by terrorist groups really determined to get to Mopti in southern Mali, and possibly Bamako afterwards. This surprise offensive had to be stopped immediately. So today…
Q. – The plan was thwarted, but it’s…
THE MINISTER – Very much so in the east, where there were groups linked to Ansar Dine, MUJAO [Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa] – these are names the listeners are now becoming familiar with. I think this offensive is working well. It’s a bit more difficult in the west where we have the toughest, most fanatical, best organized, most determined and best armed groups. Things are under way there, but it’s difficult, we were fully aware from the start that it was a very difficult operation because we’re having to deal with several hundred, over a thousand – 1,200 to 1,300 well organized terrorists…
Q. – Not more? Sometimes you read about other figures…
THE MINISTER – In that area, yes, that’s our assessment, in the area with reinforcements perhaps tomorrow, that’s the difficulty. This is why French air units are striking the support bases, particularly Gao, where the operation was a complete success. So we’re in a totally positive situation compared to last week, but fighting continues and it will take a long time. We mustn’t speculate; the goal is to ensure that Mali regains her sovereignty and integrity over the whole of her territory.
Q. – In other words, the goal is for all these fighters, these radical Islamists…
THE MINISTER – To be rooted out, weakened…
Q. – To no longer be on the territory.
THE MINISTER – Absolutely.
Q. – Today marks a new phase in the military action, because French troops will now be fighting on the ground.
THE MINISTER – Yes, the ground forces are being deployed today; up to now we had been ensuring there were a few ground forces in Bamako to make our people, our nationals, the European nationals safe first of all, and also the city of Bamako. Those French ground forces are now heading back up north.
Q. – Who is arming and financing these radical Islamist groups? We’re told trafficking…
THE MINISTER – It’s a bit of everything, a mixture of trafficking: quite obviously their drug trafficking – the drug routes pass through the Sahel –, arms trafficking – arms trafficking passes through the Sahel, including arms from Libya. In a way it’s the black market in weapons, with money from hostages as well, money recovered in the past through a whole series of transactions which were carried out, and then it’s also arms from Libya and also arms left by the Malians. (…)
Q. – These Islamists are also said to be refuelling a lot, because we see – the pictures are always startling – those pickup trucks in the desert refuelling in Algeria.
THE MINISTER – If that was the case, it isn’t any more.
Q. – Why?
THE MINISTER – Algeria closed her borders the day before yesterday, in the evening. President François Hollande had a conversation with President Bouteflika yesterday; he received President Bouteflika’s support.
Q. – Not public? No Algerian public officials have said anything yet.
THE MINISTER – I think the Algerians have pledged the necessary actions in the coming hours, and furthermore they’ve given us free use of their airspace, which was a major political move.
Q. – You’re certain of Algeria’s support?
THE MINISTER – I’m certain Algeria believes that the problem she had – namely, to achieve an agreement among the Tuaregs, which was conceivable and probably desirable – has failed [to be resolved] because Ansar Dine reneged on its commitments and chose instead to forge an alliance with AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and MUJAO; they’re Algeria’s main enemies, having originally been behind that terrible war Algeria underwent; MUJAO, we must remember, is still holding Algerian hostages – because there aren’t only French hostages, there are also Algerian hostages being held today by the terrorist group MUJAO, which we’re fighting.
Q. – So are you certain of the support of Algeria, who hasn’t yet publicly expressed that support but who might?
THE MINISTER – I’m convinced Algeria is now aware of the challenges she faces, and that’s why Algeria has closed her border, which isn’t insignificant.
Q. – No other European countries want to send soldiers to Mali; is this a problem for you?
THE MINISTER – For the time being we’ve been taking urgent action, and nobody has said “no” to anything, because if it was necessary…
Q. – The British said they wouldn’t send any troops.
THE MINISTER – If it was necessary to act on Friday, it was because we were facing an extremely rapid offensive by the terrorist groups and so, at the request of the Malian government and the Malian President, President Hollande decided to act very, very quickly. Having said that, the Europeans we speak to regularly on the telephone – the British, the Danish, the Belgians – have supported us with equipment we’ve needed, particularly transport equipment. All this is being put in place. And there’s also a meeting very soon – tomorrow – of the European foreign ministers, convened by Laurent Fabius at President Hollande’s request, which will, I think, enable us to speed up the creation of the European mission decided on at the European Council in December…
Q. – Instructors who will go and train the Malian army?
THE MINISTER – Instructors who are going to train…
Q. – But not fighters? Will the French fight alone?
THE MINISTER – Not fighters at the moment, because France’s desire is to ensure the African forces, including [those of] Mali, enable Mali to regain her sovereignty, and we’re determined to support Malian forces and African forces so as to ensure it’s Africans who recapture Mali.
Cost of operation
Q. – This question is mundane but inevitable: how much does a day’s war in Mali cost?
THE MINISTER – I can’t assess it yet.
Q. – Will you?
THE MINISTER – Of course.
Q. – Will you make it public?
THE MINISTER – All this is public, obviously.
Q. – Eight French people are still being held hostage; are you certain this morning that all eight are still alive?
THE MINISTER – Fortunately there’s no evidence to suggest the contrary; the reality is that whenever there are hostages there’s a risk to their lives; that’s the meaning of the word “hostage”. So there was a risk yesterday, there’s a risk today and there’s a risk tomorrow…
Q. – An increased risk today, no doubt?
THE MINISTER – I’m not sure; I think if we’d allowed the terrorist groups – because it’s not the same ones holding all eight hostages – to deploy their operation as far as Mopti and Bamako, then they’d hold full power and the hostages could have disappeared in the process. The reality is that France has shown her refusal to allow a terrorist state to be created in central Mali and therefore her refusal to give in to any blackmail, and I think it was useful and necessary for us to do so, to prevent there being a hostage state in addition to our eight hostages.
Q. – Regarding the fate of Denis Allex, the first hostage you tried to free in Somalia, there’s no uncertainty for you: he’s clearly dead?
THE MINISTER – Everything leads us to believe he’s been murdered. (…)./.