French fighter aircraft strike at Mali Islamists

Tue, Jan 15, 2013, 00:00

Islamist rebels mounted a counter-offensive in Mali yesterday, seizing a government-controlled town as French fighter jets continued to pound their northern strongholds.

French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his forces were facing a “difficult situation” against well-armed rebels in western Mali. But he insisted the four day-old campaign was “developing favourably”. The capture of Diabaly by the rebels brings them to within 400km of the Malian capital, Bamako. And their advance underscores the scale of the task facing French forces as they pursue small, mobile units across vast desert roughly the size of Spain.

Mr Le Drian said France had expected a counterattack in western Mali “because that is where the most determined, the most organised and fanatical elements are”, he told French television.

Heavy bombardments

Paris convened a UN security council meeting to discuss the situation and announced that EU foreign ministers would hold an extraordinary meeting later in the week. The US and Britain offered logistical and intelligence support, but France said it hoped west African states would ultimately take charge of the military operation on the ground.

Heavy bombardments by French warplanes and helicopters over the weekend had forced Islamist fighters to retreat from positions near the strategically important town of Mopti, regarded as a gateway to the country’s south.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Paris had intervened, scrapping a long-term timetable for military action by regional powers, in order to prevent the entire country falling under Islamist control.

The French operation has been welcomed by Mali and its neighbours. But MUJWA, one of the Islamist groups operating in the northern desert, warned it would drag France into a protracted conflict.

“France has opened the gates of hell for all the French,” a spokesman for MUJWA, Oumar Ould Hamaha, told Europe 1 radio. “She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.”

At least 11 Malian soldiers and a French helicopter pilot have died in the country. And more than 100 militants are reported to have been killed. Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said it had received reports of people being killed or injured in the towns of Konna and Douentza. It said at least 200 people had fled to neighbouring Mauritania by vehicle, with many more heading to the border on foot.

Reviewing security

Mr Fabius said France’s involvement, amounting to several hundred troops, would last “a matter of weeks”. Its withdrawal will depend on plans by regional states to dispatch a 3,000-strong force to the front and take control of the mission.

Military chiefs from the Economic Community of West African States are to meet in Bamako today. But regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that training and deploying troops will take time.

The intervention has raised the threat level for eight French hostages held by al-Qaeda allies in the Sahara, and for 30,000 French expatriates living in neighbouring states.

Paris said it was reviewing security in Bamako, where 6,000 French citizens are based, and had tightened security at public buildings and on public transport across France.