PARIS (AP) — France is moving surveillance drones to west Africa and holding secretive talks with U.S. officials in Paris on Monday, as France seeks to steer international military action to help Mali's feeble government win back the northern part of the country from al-Qaida-linked rebels, The Associated Press has learned.
France and the United Nations insist any invasion of Mali's north must be led by African troops. But France, which has six hostages in Mali and is said to have citizens who have joined al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, is playing an increasing role behind the scenes.
Many in the West fear that northeast Mali and the arid Sahel region could become the new Afghanistan, a no-man's-land where Islamists can train, impose shariah law and plot terror attacks.
"This is actually a major threat — to French interests in the region, and to France itself," said Francois Heisbourg, an expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a partially state-funded think tank in Paris. "This is like Afghanistan 1996. This is like when Bin Laden found a place that was larger than France in which he could organize training camps, in which he could provide stable preparations for organizing far-flung terror attacks."
France has been turning more attention to the Sahel just as it is accelerating its pullout of combat troops from Afghanistan ahead of other NATO allies.
A French defense official said Monday that France plans to move two surveillance drones to western Africa from Afghanistan by year-end, though he did not provide details.
Top-level American and French military leaders and diplomats, including U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carson, began two days of talks in Paris on Monday on intelligence-gathering and security in Mali and the rest of the Sahel region, officials from both sides told the AP.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about the activities.
The Paris meetings follow a U.N. Security Council resolution that gives Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about a month to help Malian authorities devise a plan to regain control of the north. And on Friday, African leaders met in Bamako, Mali's capital, to prepare a plan for a military intervention in the north — seized under the cover of a coup d'etat there six months ago.