French air strikes in Mali have driven back Islamist rebels from a key city and destroyed a militant command centre, the French defence minister said today.
West African nations authorised the immediate deployment of troops to the country.
The al-Qaida-linked militants, who have carved out their own territory in the lawless desert region of northern Mali over the past nine months, recently pressed closer to a major base of the Malian army, dramatically raising the stakes in the battle for the vast West African nation.
“The threat is a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe,” said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The French operation, which started yesterday in the former French colony, came after an appeal for help from Mali’s president. The fighting involved hundreds of French troops and overnight air strikes on three rebel targets, said Mr Le Drian. He said a rebel command centre outside the key city of Konna was destroyed.
Admiral Edouard Guillaud said a French helicopter had been downed and that the pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated to safety.
A military official in Mali said Islamist militants were driven out of Konna, but that the city captured by the extremists earlier this week was not yet under government control.
“We are doing sweeps of the city to find any hidden Islamist extremist elements,” said Lt Col Diarran Kone. “The full recovery of the city is too early to determine as we do not yet control the city, and we remain vigilant.”
Sanda Abou Mohamed, spokesman for Islamist group Ansar Dine, told The Associated Press he could not confirm if his fighters were still in Konna. “I cannot tell you if our fighters are still in the city of Konna or if they are not, because since yesterday afternoon I have not had contact with them as the telephone network has been down in this zone,” he said.
In a statement released today, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said they had authorised the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. They made the decision “in light of the urgency of the situation.”
ECOWAS did not say how many troops would be sent to Mali or when they would arrive. It also did not specify which countries from the 15-nation bloc would be providing the forces.
ECOWAS has been talking for months about a military operation to oust the Islamists from northern Mali. While the UN approved a plan for deployment, it had not been expected until September.
Burkina Faso’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Djibril Bassole said today that his country would send 500 troops into neighbouring Mali. He said the parliament will meet in the next couple of days to solidify the details.
Al Qaida’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam.
In recent months, however, the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.
Turbaned fighters control major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did. And as in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.
French President Francois Hollande said the “terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists” in northern Mali “show a brutality that threatens us all.” He vowed that the operation would last “as long as necessary.”
France said it was taking the action in Mali at the request of President Dioncounda Traore, who declared a state of emergency because of the militants’ advance.
Mr Hollande has said the operation is aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali, where seven of them already are being held captive.
Separately, French commandoes attacked an Islamist base in Somalia in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a French intelligence agent held hostage. The agent and a French soldier were killed, and a French soldier was missing, Mr Le Drian said. But the man’s Islamist kidnappers said the hostage was alive and that a French soldier had been captured as well.
The raid early today in Somalia could have been aimed at preventing al-Shabab fighters from harming the kidnapped French security official in reprisal for the French military intervention in Mali. Mr Le Drian said 17 Islamist fighters were killed in the failed raid.
An al-Shabab official confirmed the fighting and said the group held one dead French soldier.
France has led a diplomatic push for international action in northern Mali, but efforts to get an African-led force together, or to train the weak Malian army, have dragged on.
The United Nations Security Council has condemned the capture of Konna and urged UN member states to assist Mali “in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups.”