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Same players, different ties: France's delicate role in Mali

For Malians, the French-led intervention has been an emotional roller-coaster. At times critical of their former colonizer in the past, many are now cheering French troops.

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A French soldier secures a perimeter on the outskirts of Diabaly, Mali, some 320 miles north of the capital Bamako Monday Jan. 21. French and Malian troops were in the city whose capture by radical Islamists prompted the French military intervention.

Jerome Delay/AP

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The first casualty named in the two-week old fight to liberate northern Mali from Islamists militants was a Frenchman. Damien Boiteux, a lieutenant, was reported killed while flying his helicopter into battle near the city of Konna.

For Younouss Dicko, a Malian political party leader, the story of Lt. Boiteux inspires a mix of sorrow, gratitude – and a certain watchfulness.

“It’s valorous of France to come aid Mali,” he says. “But the French know there are limits. I think that with friendship and brotherhood, they won’t stay longer than necessary or interfere too much in our internal affairs.”

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France never sought this battle. After decades of meddling in Africa, it says it wants former colonies to look after themselves. For Malians, French-led intervention has been an emotional roller-coaster. At times critical of their former colonizer in the past, many are now cheering French troops.

The drama is playing out against a backdrop of colonial history and human ties that still link French and Malian society – sometimes complicated by old wounds, sometimes transcending them. For now, smiles abound. But a misstep by Paris could swiftly sour things.

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