Mali is a large landlocked country in West Africa with a population of almost 15 million. In recent weeks it has become a focal point for what the Morning Star has called, 'a new scramble for Africa'.

 The north of the country is part of the Sahara desert and most of the population live in the south around the Niger and Senegal rivers. It, therefore, has Saharan and sub-Saharan zones. Ninety percept of the population are Moslems. Like much of West Africa, Mali was seized by France in the late 19th century as part of the scramble for Africa and did not achieve independence until 1960. Life expectancy is 49. Most of the population live below the poverty line. Mali is overwhelmingly agricultural. Cotton is the main cash crop which is exported to the west via Senegal and Cote D’Ivoire. Gold is mined in the south of the country. 
Since January 2012 a rebel force of Jihad groups has advanced rapidly to control the whole of the north of the country and recently moved to threaten the capital Bamako. The rebels are 
a) ethnic Tuaregs including secular nationalists who are nomadic people seeking autonomy for northern Mali (MNLA), 
b) Ansar Dine (also ethnic Tuaregs) who are radical islamists and want to impose a harsh Sharia law in the north, and
c) al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb(AQIM) which operates in several countries in the Sahel and Sahara region. 
The three groups are far from united. The situation was complicated in March 2012 by a military coup in the capital by army officers unhappy with how the government was conducting the war. Pressure from France and its allies eventually resulted in the installation of the current interim President Dioncounda Traore.
President Hollande of France authorised the military intervention because it appeared that the capital Bamako was likely to fall to the rebels.  France already has 750 troops in the country and plans to deploy up to 2,500. Four Mirage and four Rafale strike aircraft and a squadron of helicopter gunships carried out 24 hour aerial bombardment of rebel positions in the week beginning 7 January. Regional troops are expected from Nigeria and other West African states (ECOWAS) in the week beginning 21 January. The UK is supplying two C-17 transport aircraft to provide heavy lift capacity. The United States is also supplying transport planes, as well as air refuelling tankers, drones and intelligence. 
Atrocities have been reported on both sides of the conflict. Islamist forces have reportedly used child soldiers and carried out flogging, amputations and stoning against opponents in the occupied areas. Government forces have been accused of targeted assassination, torture and summary arrests of ethnic Tuaregs.
According to Hollande, the aim of the intervention is to stop the rebel advance, to secure the capital, Bamako, and to assist the Mali government to regain control of the country. He described the intervention as taking place under exceptional circumstances and for a limited period only. The purpose of French military intervention, therefore, is to stabilise the situation, shift the balance of power to the government-led forces and hope that the support of around 3,000 West African forces can do the rest. But, while waiting for Ecowas forces to arrive, French troops are already on the ground and moving into the conflict zone. 
Hollande has now stated that French forces will continue the operation until all the Islamists have been wiped out. This could be a recipe for a prolonged war with a major risk that neighbouring countries such as Algeria, Niger, Senegal and Nigeria could be drawn in. Already the UNHCR has reported that more than 350,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, some to neighbouring countries. Because of last year’s military coup, the government, which French forces have been supporting, lacks any democratic legitimacy in the country. 
It would appear that the intervention has far more to do with protecting French and Western strategic interests in the region rather than reducing hardship or loss of human life. Among the neighbouring states Niger has uranium, Burkina Fasso gold and zinc and Guinea gold, diamonds and industrial minerals