The situation in the Sahel (the area south of the Sahara) degraded rapidly today for Westerners as 41 people were taken hostage in eastern Algeria in retaliation for this former French colony allowing the French air force to fly through its airspace to attack terrorist groups in northern Mali which shares a border with Algeria.
For those of you who may need little help with your central African geography I thought the following map might be helpful:
The 41 Westerners were working on the In Amenas gas plant in eastern Algeria and the Mulathamin Islamist group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping saying that the operation was "in reaction to the flagrant interference of Algeria by authorising the use of its air space by French aviation."
Shortly after the news fell a joint recommendation was sent out by the French Foreign and Defense ministries exhorting journalists covering the war to take the utmost care. I have never received such a recommendation in the past, so I guess I won't be going to Mali to cover this conflict for Ares!
If you go back and look at the map, most of the fighting is taking place along the river Niger from Timbuktu down to Mopti, a city of 120,000 which it was vital to keep out of the Islamic groups' hands. Had it fallen it would have cleared the path for them to move forward into the capital Bamako.
At last night's press conference French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the area east of the river was pretty much under control but the terrorists were holding out on the west. He and the armed forces chief of staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, confirmed that the conflict would not be over quickly as the terrorists were well organised and well armed ... to a degree. A senior army officer did concede in private that targetting the terrorists' pick-up trucks with Rafales was a little like taking a sledg-hammer to a mouse "but what else can we do?"