French step up military action in north Mali
France tightened security on public transport and at state buildings yesterday as it widened its military action against Islamist rebels in northern Mali and dispatched more troops to the country.
François Hollande raised the domestic terror threat and advised France’s 6,000 citizens in Mali to leave, reflecting fears of reprisals from Islamist groups whose positions across northern Mali have come under heavy air attack since Friday.
French fighter jets yesterday pounded the rebel stronghold of Gao, the largest town in the desert region controlled by an Islamist alliance since it seized the territory last March. Further south, French troops continued to arrive to in the capital, Bamako.
The attack on Gao, deep in the rebel-held territory, marked an escalation of the French intervention, which was triggered last Friday by the insurgents’ capture of Konna, a strategic gateway to the population centres of southern Mali.
France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the intervention had prevented rebels driving southward to seize Bamako itself. He said air raids would continue in the coming days.
“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.
Paris has deployed about 550 soldiers to Mali, split between Bamako and the town of Mopti, 460km north of the capital, Mr Le Drian said. Rafale fighter jets were also dispatched to reinforce what the French have called “Operation Serval”, after an African wildcat.
In its first casualty of the campaign, France said a pilot was killed on Friday when rebels shot down his helicopter.
France’s decision to intervene has accelerated plans by west African states to send their own troops to Mali.
Some 3,000 soldiers from the region were expected to be dispatched in the autumn. However, in response to calls from Paris for their immediate deployment, Côte d’Ivoire president Alassane Ouattara, who holds the rotating presidency of the regional Ecowas bloc, said the troops would begin to arrive in Bamako today.
The US was providing communications and transport help, Paris said, while Canada and Britain had also pledged logistical support.
French airstrikes allowed Malian troops to drive the Islamists out of Konna, which they had briefly seized this week in their southward advance.
Calm returned to the town yesterday, according to reports, after three nights of combat. A senior Malian army official was quoted saying more than 100 rebels had been killed.
“Soldiers are patrolling the streets and have encircled the town,” one resident, Madame Coulibaly, told the news agency Reuters. “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.