BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French fighter jets bombed rebel targets in a major city in Mali's north Sunday, pounding the airport as well as training camps, warehouses and buildings used by the al-Qaida-linked Islamists controlling the area, officials and residents said.
The three-day-old French-led effort to take back Mali's north from the extremists began with airstrikes by combat helicopters in the small town of Konna. It has grown to a coordinated attack by state-of-the-art fighter jets which have bombarded at least five towns, of which Gao, which was attacked Sunday afternoon, is the largest.
More than 400 French troops have been deployed to the country in the all-out effort to win back the territory from the well-armed rebels, who seized control of an area larger than France nine months ago. What began as a French offensive has now grown to include seven other countries, including logistical support from the U.S. and Europe. The United States is providing communications and transport help, while Britain is sending C17 aircrafts to help Mali's allies transport troops to the frontlines.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the intervention after it became clear the swiftly advancing rebels could break Mali's military defenses in Mopti, the first town on the government-controlled side, located in the center of this African country. The move catapulted the world into a fight that diplomats had earlier said would not take place until at least September.
"French fighter jets have identified and destroyed this Sunday, Jan. 13, numerous targets in northern Mali near Gao, in particular training camps, infrastructure and logistical depots which served as bases for terrorist groups," the French defense ministry said in a statement.
French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed than they expected, and one of the first fatalities was a 41-year-old French pilot, whose helicopter was downed by rebel fire near the town of Konna.
The Islamists, including three separate rebel groups, all of which have either direct or indirect ties to al-Qaida, are armed with weapons stolen from the abandoned arsenal of ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. They are also in possession of the weapons left behind by Mali's army, which abandoned the north in the face of the rebel advance last April. The fighters managed to seize the territory in the north after a military coup led to political turmoil in the once-stable nation of 15.8 million last March.
A French presidential aide who was not authorized to be publicly named said that the insurgents are "well-equipped, well-armed and well-trained," and are using high-end equipment. "They obtained from Libya modern, sophisticated equipment, much stronger and more efficient than we had imagined," he said.
One of the commanders controlling Gao confirmed that the French had flattened a building at the northern entrance to the town used by his fighters as a checkpoint and that three of his men died, crushed under the structure's falling roof. Oumar Ould Hamaha further confirmed that fighter jets had hit training camps and depots.
He egged on the French, calling them cowards and saying that their attack has only heightened the rebels' desire for jihad. "Our jihadists are not a bunch of sheep waiting to be slaughtered inside a closed pen," said Hamaha. "Listen closely to me. Our elements are constantly on the move. What they hit is a bunch of cement. France is going to reap the worst consequences possible from this. Now no French person can feel safe anywhere in the world. Every French national is a target."
Hamaha said he and his fighters drove to a spot around 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) outside the city to try to lure the jets away from the population center and into a direct confrontation. He claims the jets flying at an altitude of 13,000 meters made a U-turn after seeing the anti-aircraft missiles and weaponry mounted on the rebel trucks.
In Gao, Abderahmane Dicko, a public school teacher, said he and his neighbors heard the triangle-shaped jets screaming across the sky between noon and 1 p.m. local time. "We saw the war planes circling. They were targeting the camps used by the Islamists. They only hit their bases. They didn't shoot at the population," he said.
But the intervention has come with a cost to civilians. In the city of Konna, the first to be bombed, 11 Malians were killed, Mali presidential spokesman Ousmane Sy said. The town's mayor, Sory Diakite, said the dead included three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned while trying to avoid the falling bombs.
In addition to Gao and Konna, other targets have included Douentza, Lere and, late Sunday, the small locality of Agharous Kayoune, as well as Alatona, a rice growing region on the strategic route to the military camp of Diabaly, residents and officials said.
Residents are streaming out of the towns that have been hit. In Lere, people were heading across the nearby border to Mauritania, adding to the hundreds of thousands of refugees already displaced by the crisis in Mali.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed Sunday that the United States is providing communications and transport assistance. Over the weekend, a U.S. official confirmed that America will be sending drones. Britain has dispatched two, C17 aircrafts to France to help Mali's allies transport troops. Four nations in West Africa have pledged to send hundreds of soldiers, including 500 each from Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal, as well as from Nigeria.
Additionally, Fabius said Denmark and other European countries are also helping, according to an interview with RTL radio. On Monday, the United Nations Security Council will meet to discuss the crisis in Mali, said Brieuc Pont, a spokesman for the French U.N. Mission said.
French and Malian officials say the lightning offensive has halted the rebels' advance. "The Islamist offensive has been stopped," Fabius said. "Blocking the terrorists ... we've done it."
However, the rebels still control the northern half of Mali, representing the largest area under the grip of al-Qaida and its allies in the world.
The region is larger than Afghanistan, and throughout it, the bearded and turbaned fighters have imposed their unyielding form of Islam. Music is banned, as are cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol. Women are regularly flogged in public for offenses ranging from not covering their ankles to wearing perfume or make-up.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton, Sylvie Corbet and Elaine Ganley in Paris; Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania; Robbie Corey-Boulet in Ivory Coast and Cassandra Vinograd and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.
Hundreds of French troops drive back Mali rebels
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The battle to retake Mali's north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists.
At the same time, nations in West Africa authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September.
The decision to begin the military operation was taken after the fighters, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, decided earlier this week to push even further south to the town of Konna, coming within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of Mopti, the first town held by the government and a major base for the Malian military.
Many believe that if Mopti were to fall, the Islamists could potentially seize the rest of the country, dramatically raising the stakes. The potential outcome was "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday.
France scrambled Mirage fighter jets from a base in neighboring Chad, as well as combat helicopters beginning the aerial assault on Friday. They have also sent in hundreds of troops to the front line, as well as to secure the capital. In just 24 hours, French forces succeeded in dispersing the Islamists from Konna, the town the fighters had seized in a bold advance earlier in the week, Le Drian said.
Malian military officials said they were now conducting sweeps, looking for snipers.
"A halting blow has been delivered, and heavy losses have been inflicted on our adversaries, but our mission is not complete," French President Francois Hollande said after a three-hour meeting with his defense chiefs in Paris. "I reiterate that it consists of preparing the deployment of an African intervention force to allow Mali to recover its territorial integrity."
However, in a sign of how hard the battle ahead may be, the extremists succeeded in shooting down a French helicopter, the defense minister confirmed. The pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated. The Islamists are using arms stolen from ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's arsenal, as well as the weapons abandoned by Mali's military when they fled their posts in the face of the rebel advance.
They have outfitted SUVs with high-caliber machine guns, and have released videos displaying their collection of anti-aircraft weapons.
The Islamists have vowed to retaliate against French interests, and they claim to have sleeper cells in all of the capitals of the West African nations who are sending troops. Hollande announced that he had raised France's domestic terror threat level.
Online in jihadist forums, participants called for fighters to attack French interests in retaliation for the air raids. They discussed possible targets, including the French Embassy in neighboring Niger, one of the countries donating troops, according to a transcript provided by Washington-based SITE Intelligence.
The sudden military operation is a reversal of months of debate over whether or not Western powers should get involved in a military bid to oust the militants, who took advantage of a coup in Mali's capital in March to capture the north. As recently as December, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned against a quick military operation. Diplomats said that September would be the earliest the operation could take place.
All of that went out the window this week when the fighters pushed south from the town of Douentza, which demarcated their line of control, located 900 kilometers (540 miles) from the capital. By Thursday, they had succeeded in advancing another 120 kilometers (72 miles) south, bringing them nearly face-to-face with the ill-equipped and ill-trained Malian military in a showdown that couldn't be ignored by the international community.
In a statement released Saturday, the bloc representing nations in West Africa, ECOWAS, said they had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said they made the decision "in light of the urgency of the situation."
In Washington, a U.S. official confirmed that the country has offered to send drones to Mali. He could not be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. After a telephone conversation with Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to send aircrafts to help transport troops, according to a statement.
who offered troop transport aircraft. Neither official could be named because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defense minister, said on Saturday that he was at the Bamako airport to receive a contingent of French special forces from one of their tactical units. Residents in the town of Sevare, near the line of control, said they had seen planes of white people arriving, whom they assume were French soldiers.
Hundreds of French troops were involved in the operation, code-named "Serval" after a sub-Saharan wildcat, officials in Paris said.
"The situation in Mali is serious," Le Drian said in Paris. "It has rapidly worsened in the last few days ... We had to react before it was too late," he added.
French intelligence services had detected preparations for what they described as a "major offensive" organized and coordinated by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. After a large convoy of vehicles were spotted heading toward the strategic town of Mopti on Thursday, France sent in its first unit to the Central Malian town to support the Malian combat forces, Le Drian said.
Then on Friday, Hollande authorized the use of French air power following an appeal from Mali's president. French pilots targeted a column of jihadist fighters travelling in pickup trucks, who were heading down toward Mopti from Konna. He said that the helicopter raid led to the destruction of several units of fighters and stopped their advance toward the city.
Overnight Saturday, air strikes began in the areas where the fighters operate, Le Drian said, led by French forces in Chad, where France has Mirage 2000 and Mirage F1 fighter jets stationed. Residents in the town of Lere, near the Mauritanian border, confirmed that it had been bombed.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for nearly a decade, operating out of Mali's lawless northern desert. They did not come out into the open until this April, when a coup by disgruntled soldiers in Bamako caused the country to tip into chaos. The extremists took advantage of the power vacuum, pushing into the main towns in the north, and seizing more than half of Mali's territory, an area larger than Afghanistan.
Turbaned fighters now control all the major northern cities, carrying out beatings, floggings and amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten and Lori Hinnant in Paris, Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.