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Islamists promise fight across Sahara, but response disjointed (+video)

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In Mali, a planned foreign intervention to dislodge Islamist militants who overran the north last year still looked far-off until last week, with Western countries unwilling to commit troops. Algeria, a key regional power, had given only lukewarm backing.

It took a surprise advance south last week by Islamists to spur France to action. Mali’s former colonizer launched rapid air strikes and sent in hundreds of ground troops, and says it plans to hand off as soon as possible to West African troops as per the original intervention plan.

Islamists warned that Western interests would be targeted for retribution. That threat appeared to come true yesterday, when gunmen calling themselves the "Battalion of Blood" seized a gas plant near In Amenas, in eastern Algeria. They demanded an immediate halt to France’s intervention in Mali.

The plant is jointly run by Algeria’s state oil company, Sonatrach, British Petroleum, and the Norwegian firm Statoil. While details of the attack are hard to verify, three people were reported killed yesterday. The attackers said they had taken 41 foreign hostages.

For governments, the attack came as a stark warning of potentially greater struggles ahead. It’s unclear how much the Islamist groups that roam the deep Sahara work together. But they share ideology and, in some cases, links to the region’s Al Qaeda franchise as well as smuggling networks.

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