France To Send More Troops To Mali To Combat Islamist Militants
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The French defense minister says France is preparing for a possible land assault in Mali, so it plans to increase its troop levels to 2,500. Back home in France, authorities are girding for possible terrorist attacks in response to their intervention. Eleanor Beardsley has that story from Paris.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (French spoken)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: For the fifth day, France awoke to news about French bombing raids against Islamist radicals overnight in Mali. French President Francois Hollande launched an attack on Mali's al-Qaida-linked rebels last Friday after the insurgents began advancing south toward the capital. A U.N.-backed African force is being prepared to come to Mali's aid, but until it does, France is on the front line. The country is now a top target of terrorists. A French radio aired an interview with one of the jihadist leaders in Mali. What do you have to say to France, asked the journalist.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (French spoken)
OMAR OULD HAMAHA: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: France has opened the gates of hell for all its citizens, said Omar Ould Hamaha. This trap will be much bigger than Iraq or Somalia. Al-Shabab radicals in Somalia, where France launched a separate failed raid to rescue a hostage on Saturday, tweeted macabre photos of a dead French soldier. Because of France's fight against terrorists across Africa, the country is on heightened alert back home. French authorities have raised the threat level to red plus, just under the top level of scarlet. Seven hundred armed soldiers are patrolling the French capital. There is extra security in train stations, at public shopping spaces and around iconic monuments like this one.
Well, I'm standing under the Eiffel Tower. It's a cold day, so there aren't that many visitors. But there are six - one, two, three, four, five, six - soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling here.
In a radio interview this morning, Interior Minister Manuel Valls was asked if the jihadists could strike at the heart of France.
MANUEL VALLS: (Through translator) We have to be careful. I'd like to give you a definitive no. But the only way to keep terrorist acts from happening on our soil is to maintain the greatest vigilance.
BEARDSLEY: Valls said French police were fighting terrorism with new laws and methods, some adopted since homegrown radical Mohammed Merah killed three soldiers, two Jewish students and a teacher last spring in the city of Toulouse. Another problem France faces in Mali is hostages. Eight French citizens have been held for nearly three years there by a group called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The kidnappers have always said they would kill the hostages if France ever intervened. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said letting Mali become a terrorist sanctuary would not protect the hostages.
LAURENT FABIUS: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: The people holding our hostages would have become the masters of Mali if we had not intervened, said Fabius.
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BEARDSLEY: Today, the first French casualty from Mali was honored in a solemn ceremony at Les Invalides war memorial in Paris. The train station at Saint Michel in Paris has already been the scene of a terrorist attack. It was here in 1995 that a bomb set by an Algerian Islamist group killed eight people and wounded 117. Tonight, it's bustling. Marc Dechaux is on his way home.
MARC DECHAUX: (Through translator) We're glad France went into Mali. Something had to be done about that nest of radicals. The local population was suffering, and it would have eventually affected the West.
BEARDSLEY: Dechaux and every other commuter I interviewed said they back France's involvement in Mali and they're not worried about a terrorist attack. Polls show that 63 percent of the French support the military operation. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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