Here's a close look at the West African nation of Mali, where French forces launched a military operation last week to oust al-Qaida-linked militants who seized control of northern Mali about nine months ago:
Mali is a vast, landlocked nation that straddles the Sahara Desert and whose borders touch Algeria to the north and Ivory Coast to the south, linking North Africa with sub-Saharan Africa. Mali also borders Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Mali's north is currently under the rule of radical Islamists, whereas the weak central government is in the country's south.
The current fighting between French forces and the Islamists is taking place in the middle of the country in an effort to keep the militants from spreading further south toward the seat of power.
Mali is home to some 15.8 million people, about 1.62 million of whom live in the capital of Bamako. Here, men and women sometimes ride three to a motorcycle in a city where bikes have their own lanes on the bridges connecting Bamako, divided by the Niger River.
Mali's population reflects a rich diversity of cultures including the Bambara, the Malinke and the Peul. The country's north is also home to Arabs and the Tuaregs, who have led a number of rebellions against the central government over the years.
Mali is world-famous for its musicians, including the late Ali Farka Toure, as well as global exports Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, and Oumou Sangare.
Before a spate of kidnappings carried out by al-Qaida's North Africa branch, the fabled city of Timbuktu was a popular tourist destination and the country hosted an annual music event called Festival in the Desert.
Westerners also flocked to the stunning mud mosque of Djenne and the region known as Dogon Country, where guides bring people from village to village in a community long studied by anthropologists.
Mali is 90 percent Muslim, and the call to prayer regularly echoes across communities where prayer mats and beads are sold on the streets. The northern city of Timbuktu is a historically significant site of Islamic learning and today the city still has some 20,000-catalogued manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century.
The Islam followed by Malians for centuries is a moderate form, though extremists began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah last year across the north when they took over the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
The Islamists have provoked international outcry by razing historic tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque in Timbuktu. They also have carried out public executions and amputations, as well as whippings for infractions ranging from possessing cigarettes to women going out without headscarves.
Many women in southern Mali work outside the home and do not wear the veil, though polygamy is still common throughout the country.
Analysts worry that the al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali's north are using the vast, desolate region outside government control to prepare for attacks outside Mali's borders. Given the country's historical ties to France, the former colonizer, many Malians pass back and forth between the two countries.
Many Malians are subsistence farmers, raising millet, sorghum, rice and corn. However, the country's third-largest export after cotton and livestock is gold.
Mali slid into dictatorship after gaining independence from France in 1960, but then a 1991 coup led to elections the next year. Mali's then-president stepped down after the maximum two-term limit and Amadou Toumani Toure, known as ATT, was peacefully elected in 2002.
Toure was just months away from the end of his term when mutinous soldiers overthrew him in a coup in March 2012. The coup leader nominally handed over power to a weak, interim civilian government but is widely believed to still be controlling the country. The turmoil has left Mali's military in disarray, raising questions about how helpful Malian soldiers can be during the French-led intervention.
Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is estimated to have the second-highest infant mortality rate, with only Afghanistan higher. Life expectancy is a mere 53 years, and only 20 percent of women can read and write. Malian women on average have about six children each, and it is not uncommon for children to accompany their parents into the fields to work at a young age or to be involved in the country's mining industry.
Source: World Bank, CIA World Factbook
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