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Explainer: Here’s what you need to know about Mali

As tensions surge between France and its former colony Mali, this factfile gives the facts about the country and how the current situation arose.

A Mali special forces soldier stands guard at Banako's airport on Wednesday
A Mali special forces soldier stands guard at Banako's airport on Wednesday
Image: AP Photo/Jerome Delay

TENSIONS HAVE SURGED  in Mali as France and its former colony have become locked in a vicious military struggle over a large part of the vast, landlocked country.

For more than a week, a French military operation has been ongoing against armed Islamist rebels who have controlled the north of the country since April 2012.

Here are the key facts and figures about Mali:

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION: Mali, a largely desert country which is crossed by the Niger River, is 1,240,000 square kilometres in area. It is bordered to the north by Algeria, to the east by Niger, to the south by Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Guinea, to the west by Senegal and to the northwest by Mauritania.

POPULATION: 15.8 million in 2011 (World Bank), 70 percent of whom live in the countryside. Divided into 20 ethnic groups, including the Bambara, Fulani, Marka, Senufo, Soninke, Tuareg, Songhai, Malinke and Dogon.

CAPITAL: Bamako.

LANGUAGES: French is the official language.

RELIGION: Muslim (90 percent), Christian (10 percent).

HISTORY: Formerly a French colony, Mali gained independence on June 20, 1960. The country was run by president Modibo Keita until a coup d’etat in 1968 led by Moussa Traore.

After more than 22 years in power, Traore’s regime was overthrown by an armed insurrection in March 1991 in which dozens were killed.

A Transitional Committee, headed by Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Toure, ran the country from 1991 until elections in 1992 when Alpha Oumar Konare became the first democratically elected president. He stepped down at the end of two five-year terms in 2002.

Toure then ran for election as an independent and won in 2002. He was reelected in 2007.

On March 22, 2012, mutinous soldiers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo announced they had overthrown the Toure government, saying it had failed to give the armed forces the means to defeat a rebellion by Tuareg rebels and Islamists in the north.

The junta and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) then announced a deal that includes democratic elections. At the same time the Tuaregs and Islamist groups allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb occupied the north, declaring independence in the region. Islamists then overcame the Tuaregs and occupied the north, applying an extreme form of Islamic law.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN MALI THIS MONTH

January 10:

- Islamists capture the government-held central town of Konna and say they will push farther south.

- Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore asks France for help.

- Witnesses say foreign troops and weapons have begun arriving by transport plane at an army base in Sevare, just 70 kilometres south of Konna.

January 11:

- With French support, Malian government troops launch an offensive against Islamist rebels.

- French President Francois Hollande confirms French troops are actively supporting the offensive.

January 12:

- French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announces the death of a French helicopter pilot.

January 13:

- French airstrikes target Islamist bases in the northern regions of Gao and Kidal.

- Four French Rafale fighter jets bomb targets near the town of Gao, which has been controlled by an Al-Qaeda offshoot, destroying rebel training camps and logistical bases, according to Le Drian. More than 60 rebels are killed in Gao and its outskirts, residents say.

- Hollande says the intervention has stopped a southward rebel advance seen as threatening the capital Bamako.

- Algeria has authorised French warplanes to use its airspace for bombing raids on Mali, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says.

January 14:

- Rebels abandon key northern bases. Residents in the towns of Gao, Douentza and Timbuktu report all Islamists have fled, though a rebel spokesman calls it a “tactical retreat.”

- However, Islamists seize the town of Diabaly in government-held territory, 400 kilometres north of the capital. They vow to “strike at the heart of France.”

- Ethnic-Tuareg separatists say they are ready to support France by taking on Islamist rebels on the ground.

January 15

- France engages for the first time ground troops to retake Diabaly. Hundreds of soldiers from France and Mali head to the town, which witnesses say is bombarded by French fighter planes. Le Drian says the Malian army has not regained control of Konna, after the Malian army announced on January 12 that they had taken the town.

- Speaking in Dubai, Hollande says the French intervention has three objectives — “ending terrorists attacks,” as well as “securing Bamako where we have thousands of citizens and help Mali to restore its territorial integrity.”

- Some 2,500 French troops are to be deployed for Operation Serval.

January 16

- French troops battle rebels in Diabaly. Le Drian says the western zone where Diabaly lies is home to “the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups.”

- Islamist fighters claim to have taken 41 foreigners hostage in a retaliatory attack in neighbouring Algeria.

- West African army chiefs met in Bamako to fine tune plans to send African troops to join the offensive.

January 17

- French warplanes continue to pound Islamist militant targets in Mali around Diabaly.

- Confusion abounds over the fate of the hostages being held in the gas field compound in Algeria

January 18

- French troops seize Konna, a key city in the central region of Mali, from the rebels.

- Hundreds of hostages are freed by militants holding them at the Algerian gas facility but around 30 foreign workers were still unaccounted for as of Friday evening.

(Tank photo: AP Photo/Harouna Traore)

- © AFP, 2013

Read: United Nations backs Mali intervention as more French troops on the way >

Read: Mali conflict: Islamists vow to strike ‘at heart’ of France >

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