French troops prepare to board a transport plane in
N'Djamena, Chad, in this photo released by the French Army
Communications Audiovisual office. REUTERS/ECPAD/Adj.
French fighter jets have pounded an Islamist rebel
stronghold deep in northern Mali as Paris pours more troops
into the capital Bamako, awaiting a West African force to
dislodge al Qaeda-linked insurgents from the country's north.
The attack on Gao, the largest city in the desert region
controlled by the Islamist alliance, marked a decisive
intensification on the third day of French air raids,
striking at the heart of the vast territory seized by rebels
France is determined to end Islamist domination of north
Mali, which many fear could act as a base for attacks on the
West and for links with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North
France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French
intervention on Friday had prevented the advancing rebels
from seizing Bamako. He vowed that air strikes would
"The president is totally determined that we must eradicate
these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own
country and Europe," he told French television.
In Gao, a dusty town on the banks of the Niger river where
Islamists have imposed an extreme form of sharia law,
residents said French jets pounded the airport and rebel
positions. A huge cloud of black smoke rose from the
militants' camp in the city's north, and pick-up trucks
ferried dead and wounded to hospital.
"The planes are so fast you can only hear their sound in the
sky," resident Soumaila Maiga said by telephone. "We are
happy, even though it is frightening. Soon we will be
Paris said four state-of-the-art Rafale jets flew from France
to strike rebel training camps, logistics depots and
infrastructure in Gao with the aim of weakening the rebels
and preventing them from returning southward.
A spokesman for Ansar Dine, one of the main Islamist
factions, said the French had also bombed targets in the
towns of Lere and Douentza. Residents said rebel fighters had
fled from Douentza aboard pick-up trucks.
France has deployed about 550 soldiers to Mali under
"Operation Serval" - named after an African wildcat - split
between Bamako and the town of Mopti, 500 km (300 miles)
In Bamako, a Reuters cameraman saw more than 100 French
troops disembark on Sunday from a military cargo plane at the
international airport, on the outskirts of the capital.
The city itself was calm, with the sun streaking through the
dust enveloping the city as the seasonal Harmattan wind blew
from the Sahara. Some cars drove around with French flags
draped from the windows to celebrate Paris's intervention.
AFRICAN TROOPS EXPECTED
More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a
reputation as a bulwark of democracy, but that image
unravelled in a matter of weeks after a military coup in
March which left a power vacuum for the Islamist rebellion.
French President Francois Hollande's intervention in Mali has
won plaudits from leaders in Europe, Africa and the United
States but it is not without risks.
It raised the threat level for eight French hostages held by
al Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for the 30,000 French
expatriates living in neighbouring, mostly Muslim states.
Concerned about reprisals, France has tightened security at
public buildings and on public transport. It advised its
6,000 citizens to leave Mali as spokesmen for Ansar Dine and
al Qaeda's north Africa wing AQIM promised to exact revenge.
In its first casualty of the campaign, Paris said a French
pilot was killed on Friday when rebels shot down his
Hours earlier, a French intelligence officer held hostage in
Somalia by al Shabaab extremists linked to al Qaeda was
killed in a failed commando raid to free him.
President Hollande says France's aim is simply to support a
mission by West African bloc ECOWAS to retake the north, as
mandated by a U.N. Security Council resolution in December.
With Paris pressing West African nations to send their troops
quickly, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who holds
the rotating ECOWAS chairmanship, kick-started the operation
to deploy 3,300 African soldiers.
Ouattara, installed in power with French military backing in
2011, convened a summit of the 15-nation bloc for Saturday in
Ivory Coast to discuss the mission.
"The troops will start arriving in Bamako today and
tomorrow," said Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's African
Integration Minister. "They will be convoyed to the front."
The United States is considering sending a small number of
unarmed surveillance drones to Mali as well as providing
logistics support, a U.S. official told Reuters. Britain and
Canada have also promised logistical support.
Former French colonies Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso have
all pledged to deploy 500 troops within days. In contrast,
regional powerhouse Nigeria, due to lead the ECOWAS force,
has suggested it would take time to train and equip the
France, however, appeared to have assumed control of the
operation on the ground. Its airstrikes allowed Malian troops
to drive the Islamists out of the strategic town of Konna,
which they had briefly seized this week in their southward
Analysts expressed doubt, however, that African nations would
be able to mount a swift operation to retake north Mali - a
harsh, sparsely populated terrain the size of France - as
neither the equipment nor ground troops were prepared.
"My first impression is that this is an emergency patch in a
very dangerous situation," said Gregory Mann, associate
professor of history at Columbia University, who specialises
in francophone Africa and Mali in particular.
While France and its allies may be able to drive rebel
fighters from large towns, they could struggle to prise them
from mountain redoubts in the region of Kidal, 300 km (200
miles) northeast of Gao, where April's uprising began.
Calm returned to Konna on Sunday after three nights of combat
as the Malian army mopped up any rebel fighters. A senior
Malian army official said more than 100 rebels had been
"Soldiers are patrolling the streets and have encircled the
town," one resident, Madame Coulibaly, told Reuters by phone.
"They are searching houses for arms or hidden Islamists."
Human Rights Watch said at least 11 civilians, including
three children, had been killed in the fighting.
A spokesman for Doctors Without Borders in neighbouring
Mauritania said about 200 Malian refugees had fled across the
border to a camp at Fassala and more were on their way.
In Bamako, civilians tried to contribute to the war effort.
"We are very proud and relieved that the army was able to
drive the jihadists out of Konna. We hope it will not end
there, that is why I'm helping in my own way," said civil
servant Ibrahima Kalossi, 32, one of over 40 people who
queued to donate blood for wounded soldiers.