DAKAR Jan 15 French strikes on al Qaeda-linked
rebels in Mali have raised the risk of revenge attacks on French
citizens in parts of Africa, officials say, although expatriates
and foreign companies were mainly taking the threats in their
French troops launched their first ground operation against
Islamist rebels on Wednesday after six days of air strikes.
Mali's rebels have said French intervention would make
targets of France's 30,000 citizens in West Africa and endanger
the lives of the eight French nationals already in Islamist
hands since a spate of kidnappings.
"French interests are threatened all over. Yes, we are
worried that our interests in Bamako could be targeted by
attacks," French ambassador Christian Rouyer told journalists on
Tuesday, flanked by three bodyguards in Mali's capital Bamako.
Some of Mali's neighbours have raised security measures
since the strikes, including by sending additional police on
patrol and carrying out identity and bag checks at government
buildings, embassies, and tourist sites.
Islamists linked to al Qaeda have been active in the Sahara
for a decade. Their attacks on Western targets so far have
mainly involved kidnappings, and it is not clear how capable
they would be of striking far beyond the desert.
"The situation is a little bit scary, but I don't think
hardcore Islamists would get much sympathy here," said Jeremie
Thomas, a 25-year-old Frenchman sipping coffee beneath a baobab
tree at a restaurant in Senegal's sleepy capital Dakar.
Four police with automatic rifles stood at the restaurant's
gates and guards checked the bags of arriving clients.
Security experts said the most likely threat of revenge
attacks from the Islamists in the short-term would be bombings
in Mali itself, though there were also risks that sleeper cells
or linked groups could strike elsewhere in Africa.
Mankeur Ndiaye, foreign minister in neighbouring Senegal,
said al Qaeda sleeper cells existed in his country.
There have been reports of members of Nigeria's Islamist
sect Boko Haram - which has been waging a bombing campaign in
the north of that country - entering Mali via Niger, raising
concerns that groups will coordinate.
A U.S. military source said an attack in Bamako or elsewhere
in West Africa would be much more likely than one in France.
French companies, including France Telecom and Air
France, said they were happy with their current
security measures in West Africa and had not changed operations
since the start of French bombing raids last week. Air France
said its daily Paris-Bamako flight was being maintained.
French nuclear energy giant Areva - which had
four employees kidnapped near its mine in Niger in 2010 - said
it was monitoring the situation in the Sahel and had increased
vigilance. Areva has no operations in Mali.
Elsewhere in the region, some schools catering to
expatriates hardened security, including in places like Ivory
Coast's main city Abidjan and in Burkina Faso's capital
Ouagadougou - both foreign to Islamist violence.
"I'm worried," said Michel Stremez, a French businessman in
Abidjan, referring to Paris's decision to intervene in Mali.
"They are running the affairs of the whole world without letting
us know, without asking what we think, and this could have
repercussions just about anywhere."
French citizens in West Africa have been on alert since
Christmas Eve, 2006 when suspected al Qaeda militants gunned
down four tourists picnicking by the roadside near the village
of Aleg in Mauritania.
Those attacks triggered a scare among foreigners in the
mostly Muslim former French colony and prompted organisers to
cancel the 2008 Dakar Rally. The transcontinental car and
motorcycle race has since moved to South America.
Military sources in Mauritania said the country had added
soldiers to its Malian frontier and hardened security checks
there since the French intervention but that Malian refugees
were still being admitted to camps along the border.
If Islamist militants want to punish those who intervene in
Mali, they will soon have a lot of targets to choose from.
Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Niger, Guinea, and
Senegal have all committed to sending troops to Mali to join a
United Nations-sanctioned Africa-led ground mission to retake
Mali from the Islamists.
"I'm sure they'd like to hit the French but you've also got
all the troop contributor countries and the other countries
lending logistical support. So their targeting could be quite
wide," a Western diplomat told Reuters.
"I think the whole region is vulnerable."
(Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar, Mathieu Bonkoungou
in Ouagadougou, Joe Bavier in Abidjan, and Bate Felix in Bamako;
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Graff)