US Secretary of State John Kerry met French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Mali on the third leg of a European tour so far dominated by the Syrian conflict.
Kerry, who has hailed France’s “successful” mission in Mali, will also hold talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and address a joint news conference in the afternoon.
He then flies to Rome for a “Friends of Syria” meeting on Thursday. The conflict has claimed 70,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
Kerry spent just over an hour at the Elysee Palace presidential residence on Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday, he told a youth event in Berlin: “Now, our preference in a Mali or anywhere else is to peacefully, calmly, by rule of law, have the ability to be able to give people the choice of what they want with respect for rights, for women?s rights, for human rights, for religious rights, for all these opportunities to be able to come together.
“Now, the French have decided it?s enough of a threat to them that they?re taking the lead and they?re engaged in trying to work to strengthen the government. They don?t want to be there, I assure you, for the long term.”
The highlight of Kerry’s Paris stopover — which comes after halts in London and Berlin — is Mali where France sent in troops on January 11 to stop Islamists holding the north from pushing down to the capital Bamako.
The French intervention has driven Islamist rebels — composed of various groups — from cities in the north of the west African country, but clashes and guerrilla attacks have continued.
The two allies will take stock of the situation and France is sure to seek Washington’s support for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force there to pick up the baton from French troops, according both US and French officials.
Mali has become the new symbol of the fight against terrorism after Afghanistan and Washington sent transport planes and drones to boost the French-led intervention, currently backed by the African force AFISMA.
A senior State Department official said Mali would be the focus in Paris.
“It’s something that they have raised with us well before the recent operation, given their great concerns about North Africa and the role of AQIM,” or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the official said.
However, Washington and Paris have not always been in sync on Mali, which was initially supposed to have a west African force come in to stop the advancing Islamists.
That was held up partly due to financial and weapons constraints faced by African nations, prompting Paris to send troops to its former colony to prevent the Islamists from marching on the capital.
The United States dragged its feet on providing logistical support to the French intervention and then provided C-17 transport planes. But it slapped France with an exorbitant bill which it later withdrew.
“It’s not very surprising but well we told them: ‘hey boys listen’…and finally it was settled,” a French diplomat said.
Officially there are no stumbling blocks and American officials have stressed that Washington had already given $96 million (73 million euros) to help train the African force.
“So it’s a very good moment for us to be sitting down with the French, looking at how they see the ground situation, how they see the Mali military coming forward, how we see the AFISMA training mission, and how AFISMA’s performing already on the ground in Mali,” another senior State Department official said.
The US has sent several Predator drones to Niger, Mali’s eastern neighbour, to back the French offensive. “That backing was very important, it helped us. We really appreciate it,” a French diplomat said.
French officials said the other main items on the agenda were the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, which have sparked global alarm, as well as the dragging conflict in Syria.
Citing US and European officials, the Washington Post newspaper said the White House is mulling a major policy shift on Syria and is toying with the idea of supplying rebels with direct aid like body armour, armoured vehicles and even military training.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]