16 January 2013

Africa: News Round Up

In Mali French troops are set for their first major ground combat with Islamist rebels in Mali after heading out from the capital, Bamako, the BBC reports.

A convoy of about 30 armoured vehicles set out on Tuesday for Diabaly, 350km (220 miles) to the north, a town captured by the rebels on Monday.

The first units of an African force are set to arrive on Wednesday to bolster the French. France intervened last Friday to halt the Islamists' drive to the capital.

Islamists entered Diabaly on Monday, taking the town from Malian forces. French war planes have since attacked the rebel positions.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Islamist rebels fighting to overthrow Mali's government are "determined, well-equipped and well-trained" and still hold a key town in the central part of that African country.

France, the former colonial power in Mali, has committed about 1,700 troops and air crews to the fight, Le Drian said. The force includes about 800 troops on the ground in Mali, including an armor unit.

The operation is hitting "significant concentrations of fighters and vehicles" in the north, behind the front lines, and bolstering government troops' defense of Bamako, he said.

However, France has been pushing hard for the deployment of a West African regional force.

Regional military commanders began a meeting in Bamako on Tuesday, agreeing the swift deployment of troops.

A company of 190 Nigerians will be the first to arrive, on Wednesday.

Nigeria will lead the force, with 900 troops. Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged to take part.

The West African force will total about 3,300 under a UN Security Council resolution.

On Wednesday, an official of the separatist Tuareg organisation, the MNLA, in northern Mali, said the group was ready to join the fight against their former allies, the Islamist militants.

Also in Mali, troops from a regional West African force are due to begin deploying within a week, Aljazeera reports.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Tuesday in Paris that the looming deployment meant French forces would not have to bear the burden of fighting in Mali for very long.

"France is today in the vanguard, but within a week African forces will start to deploy on the ground," he said.

Ayrault's comments come as President Francois Hollande said France will end its intervention in Mali only when stability has returned to the West African country.

"We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory," Hollande said in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow, reporting from the capital, Bamako, said the military chiefs of the West African bloc of nations, ECOWAS, were still meeting over the details of the deployment.

"What we are hearing is that the military chiefs [of ECOWAS] are deliberating over the different aspects of this deployment," he said.

"What they have announced is that the chief of the mission will be from Nigeria, and will lead around 3,300 troops.

"The forces will be supporting the French troops ... but they will have to be trained first before they go to the north, because they have previously worked as peacekeepers."

French warplanes have been hitting targets in various parts of Mali since Friday in support of Malian forces seeking to dislodge the rebels who last year seized control of its vast desert north and had advanced south.

In Somalia Reuters reports that militants linked to al Qaeda said on Wednesday they had sentenced a French agent to death several days after an attempt by French armed forces to rescue him failed.

Al Shabaab said in a statement the decision to kill Denis Allex, held hostage in Somalia since 2009, was unanimous and followed three years of what it called "exhaustive attempts at negotiations" over his release.

"With the rescue attempt, France has voluntarily signed Allex's death warrant," the militants said in an emailed statement that was also posted on the group's official Twitter handle.

They said France bore responsibility for his death, as well as for two French commandos killed during Friday night's raid in the town of Bulo Marer.

Al-Shabab has posted an image of a dead commando, but not of Mr Allex, the codename of the hostage who has been held for more than three years.

"We have nothing since Friday's raid on Denis Allex being alive. We think he is likely dead," Guillard said.

It was not immediately clear whether the rebels were saying they had already killed Allex.

Guillard said the militants were engaging in "media manipulation."

In South Africa, News24 reports that Mining Minister Susan Shabangu has accused Anglo Platinum chief executive Chris Griffiths of arrogance on Wednesday morning, following the company's warning of 14 000 possible retrenchments.

This came following Amplats announcement on Tuesday that it could cut up to 14 000 jobs in a major restructuring. It said it would close four shafts and sell a mine considered unsustainable.

"Listen to this, the arrogance of Chris. He said in his statement he's going to talk to labour. And he's not going to talk to government? He's not going to talk to us as the regulator... leave government out? Well, we have procedures we have to follow," Shabangu said in an interview on SAfm.

he minister said Amplats needed to have had more consultations and was in contravention of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act.

Asked if their mining licence was under threat, Shabangu replied: "It's themselves who are putting their licence in jeopardy -- not us. Themselves."

Local media reported that workers would be meeting later to plot wider strike action after Amplats, a unit of global mining group Anglo American, unveiled plans on Tuesday to mothball two South African mines, sell another and cut 14,000 jobs.

A company spokeswoman said she could not immediately comment on the claims that workers had downed tools because she was waiting for an operational update from managers at the mines.

Amplats said on Monday that it is likely fall to a full-year loss because of those strikes.

South Africa sits on about 80 percent of the known reserves of platinum, used to build emissions-capping catalytic converters in automobiles, but weak demand has depressed the price.

The price of platinum rallied to three-month highs on Tuesday because of supply concerns triggered by the Amplats proposals.

Kumba Iron Ore, also part of the Anglo stable, said on Wednesday that its full-year profit is likely to have fallen by about a third, hit by lower export prices and an illegal strike at its main mine.

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