French jets pound northern Mali


French fighter jets pounded an Islamist rebel stronghold in northern Mali today as Paris poured 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 drive northwards on the third day of French air strikes, moving deep into the vast territory seized by rebels in April.

France said it is sending more jet fighters to northern Mali as part of a push that began two days ago and will continue until the rebel forces are "eradicated".

"Raids are continuing right now," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said today on Europe 1 radio. "There were raids last night; there will be more this afternoon and tomorrow."

France and west African states are seeking to stop Mali from being  overrun by the militants, a development they say would give terrorists a base for destabilizing the region and Europe.

Rapid progress by the rebels last week prompted France to start military action, almost nine months earlier than most analysts had predicted.

The intervention so far has been handled by the 550 French troops in the country, though Mr Le Drian pledged to send reinforcements as necessary.

West African nations have pledged to send about 2,000 soldiers to oust the militants, while the US has offered to provide intelligence, logistical support and in-flight refuelling for French aircraft.

The UK is assisting with two Boeing C-17 military cargo aircraft to help transport troops.

"We're reinforcing and will continue to do so as necessary," Mr Le Drian said. "The objective, as set out by the United Nations and the African Union, is for Mali to be a sovereign state and for the terrorist groups to be eradicated."

One French soldier, a helicopter pilot, has been killed since operations began, while the rebels have lost "a significant number of partisans," Mr Le Drian said.

The French effort has destroyed pick-up trucks, arms depots and other sensitive sites, thus far pushing back a rebel offensive in the east of the country while fighting continues in the west.

More than 100 people, including rebels and Malian government soldiers, were killed in yesterday's  fighting, Xinhua news agency said, citing an unidentified Malian military official.

The Islamists, who already control the north of the country, last week began an offensive that captured the town of Kona, 30 kilometers north of Mopti, the last Malian military outpost before insurgent-held territory.

Kona was quiet early today after a firefight yesterday that killed 11 people and injured 60, according to the Malian government.

"This morning it's calm, we no longer hear gunfire," Kona resident Aguibou Cisse said by telephone. Colonel Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali's military, said the army "controls the situation" there.

Mali vies with Tanzania to be Africa's third-biggest gold producer. The landlocked nation is about twice the size of Texas and has a population of about 15.5 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. Life expectancy is about 53 years.

The UN Security Council on January 10th expressed "grave concern" about attacks by "terrorist and extremist groups" in Mali. French President Francois Hollande said France's military actions are covered by a December 21st Security Council resolution that approved a west African military operation to retake the north.


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