The French military, backed by the US, Britain, Italy and Germany, are on the attack against Islamist rebels in Mali. Military contingents from nearby African countries are also prepared to intervene.
Although many Malians appear to be welcoming the intervention so far, it is the culmination of a series of actions by France and the US that have opened several options - none of them very good -for this impoverished west African country in the Sahel region of Africa.
The French justify their intervention by warning that not only Mali but also the whole region could become the base for terrorist actions which would affect not only the continent but Europe as well.
A year ago, Tuaregs in north-eastern Mali had begun an armed uprising - not their first - aimed at creating a new Tuareg state. It's to be called Azawad and the aim is to establish it from parts of Mali and neighbouring countries which also have large Tuareg minorities.
Claiming that the Malian government was not providing the army with sufficient resources to defeat the Tuareg rebellion, junior officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew the government in March.
The coup disorganised and divided the Malian forces, allowing the rebels to make rapid advances and the capture the whole of north-eastern Mali, including the famous city of Timbuktu. The Tuareg separatist organisation, the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA), had taken on several militant Islamist forces as allies including Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa).
Malian and foreign fighters from these groups rapidly moved to the front of the rebellion, pushing the Tuareg separatist fighters aside and imposing an extremely harsh form of sharia law on the local inhabitants.
Most people in Mali are Muslims, but practice a more liberal, Sufi-influenced form of Islam, which also incorporates local African traditions. The rebels have now imposed prohibitions on music, restrictions on women's dress and movements and other bans, while also introducing execution of adulterers, maiming of thieves and the destruction of historic tombs of Sufi saints.
Tuareg disaffection is not new but the rebellion got a big boost from the French and Nato attack on Libya, which resulted in the overthrow and killing of Muammar Gadaffi last year. This allowed a vast amount of armaments and supplies from the Libyan army to fall into the hands of the Tuareg-Islamist alliance. Many trained and experienced Tuareg officers and soldiers from Libya were thus launched into Mali along with all the hardware.
A recent New York Times article suggests a deep US involvement in creating the current bloody developments. It seems the US has provided extensive training for Malian military officers but many of them have have gone over to the rebels, taking their skills with them. Captain Sanogo, leader of the March 2011 coup which even further destabilised the situation and opened the door for the Islamist takeover of all of north-eastern Mali, was also trained by the US.
This is a situation which could repeat itself elsewhere in Africa. Most US citizens probably do not know that their country has now got a military presence in numerous African countries. Some are "boots on the ground" but many more are involved in training and support missions like the one that has gone so spectacularly wrong in Mali.
When the west African state got its independence from France in 1960, it was the recipient of much aid from the Soviet Union and the east European socialist countries. But after socialism collapsed in Europe, Mali was pressured into accepting many policies that tie it to the French economy. Its currency, the west African CFA franc - also shared by other west African states, most of which are former French colonies - is partly controlled by France.
Like most of its neighbours, Mali is dependent on credit from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which require programmes of "structural adjustment" emphasising "free" trade, privatisation and austerity in exchange for extending credit.
Like other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Mali is rich in natural resources, which it provides at low cost to French and other outside corporations. Mali's major products are gold and agricultural and fisheries products. There may be major oil deposits under the Saharan sands of the north, currently controlled by the Islamist insurgents.
Neighbouring Niger has major uranium deposits on which France relies for a large proportion of its energy needs. This was the infamous "yellowcake" uranium ore, cited by George W Bush and Tony Blair, which played a major role in providing a pretext for the Iraq war.
Yet Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its per capita Gross Domestic Product is about £750 per year, its infant mortality rate is over 100 infant deaths annually per 1,000 live births and the literacy level is a little more than 30 per cent. It's worse in the barren north-east of the country.
On top of all this comes a major problem of climate change. The Sahara desert is relentlessly pushing southward, forcing cattle, sheep and camel herders to leave their traditional zones of settlement. This desertification has been affecting the whole Sahel belt for thousands of years but global warming and other factors are intensifying it and increasing social conflicts, while creating a huge multinational refugee problem. The war in Mali means that hundreds of thousands are being displaced.
The original intention was not to call on the French to prop up the Malian government. The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States were supposed to do that job in co-ordination with the Malian army and with the sanction of the UN security council. But most observers say that such an all-African force could not be ready until September and the Islamists stole a march on them by last week's thrust toward Bamako.
The French have been bombing rebel positions in the north east but the rebels have gone to ground and have moved past the narrow section of the country which separates the rebel-held north-east from the populous south-west, capturing and holding the important centres of Konna and Diabali and threatening Mopti, a key regional capital.
The French say that their stay may be extended and the people of Mali now find themselves trapped between two unappetising alternatives - submit to harsh sharia law imposed by the rebels or hand over effective sovereignty to a foreign occupying force in which their former colonial masters play the most prominent role and have their own economic and political agenda.
Reports say that many in Bamako and other regions of Mali are currently glad that the French troops have arrived because they see the Islamists as a bigger threat. But time will tell how that will hold up over the long haul.
The main organisation of the Marxist left in Mali, SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence) issued a statement in support of the Malian army troops going to combat the Islamic insurgency but warned about matters escalating into a war which would end up justifying foreign occupation of the country.
And let's not forget that the seizing of the gas facility in Algeria adds a new dimension to the crisis.
Among the Islamist fighters' demands were an end to Algerian collaboration with French intervention and the freeing of Islamist prisoners in Algeria where in the 1990s a war took place between the government and Islamists which by some estimates cost 200,000 lives.
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