A map of the West African state of Mali illustrating Timbuktu, Bomako and Hombori. Mali has an ancient history of culture and civilization., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
U.S. helping support Mali operation
Rukmini Callimachi, Associated Press
2:57p.m. EST January 13, 2013
The United States is providing communications and transport help to the operation in Mali to take back control of the country's north from al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The military operation began Friday after the town of Konna fell to al-Qaeda-linked groups
The U.S. is providing communications and transport help
African nations are sending troops Sunday to assist France
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — France claimed new successes in its campaign to oust Islamist extremists from northern Mali on Sunday, bombarding the major city of Gao with airstrikes targeting the airport and training camps used by the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group controlling the city.
France's foreign minister also said the 3-day-old intervention is gaining international support, with communications and transport help from the United States and backing from Britain, Denmark and other European countries.
The French-led effort to take back Mali's north from the extremists occupying it has included airstrikes by jets and combat helicopters on at least four northern towns, of which Gao is the largest. Some 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 itself following a coup in Mali nine months ago.
"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.
Residents of Gao confirmed that the targets included the city's airport, as well as the building that served as the base for the town's feared Islamist police, which — in their adherence to a strict version of Muslim law — have carried out numerous punishments including amputating limbs of accused thieves.
Gao resident Abderahmane Dicko, a public school teacher, said he and his neighbors heard the jets screaming across the sky between noon and 1 p.m. local time.
"We saw the war planes circling. They were targeting the camps uses by the Islamists. They only hit their bases. They didn't shoot at the population," he said.
But the intervention has come with a human cost in the city of Konna, the first to be bombed on Friday and Saturday. The town's mayor said that at least 10 civilians were killed, including three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned trying to avoid the falling bombs.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the military operation, code-named "Serval" after a sub-Saharan wildcat, after it became clear that the advancing rebels could push past the defenses in the town of Mopti, the first town on the government-controlled side, which has the largest concentration of Malian soldiers.
The decision catapulted the world and Mali's neighbors into a military operation that diplomats had earlier said would not take place until at least September. France's defense minister said they had no choice because of the swift rebel advance.
On Saturday, the body representing nations in West Africa announced that the member states would send hundreds of troops of their own, including at least 500 each from Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal, as well as from Nigeria.
They will work alongside French special forces, including a contingent that arrived Saturday in Bamako to secure the Malian capital against retaliatory attacks by the al-Qaeda-linked groups occupying Mali's northern half.
TV footage showed the French troops walking single-file out of the Bamako airport, weapons strapped to their bodies or held over their shoulders, like skis.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the military effort succeeded in blocking the advance that had prompted the intervention. "The Islamist offensive has been stopped," Fabius said on RTL radio Sunday. "Blocking the terrorists … we've done it."
He sought to stress that the operation is gaining international backing, despite concern about the risks of the mission in a stretch of lawless desert in weakly governed country. "We have the support of the Americans for communications and transport," Fabius said, but gave no details.
U.S. officials have said they had offered to send drones to Mali and were considering a broad range of options for assistance, including information-sharing and possibly allowing limited use of refueling tankers. British Prime Minister David Cameron also agreed to send aircraft to help transport troops.
France bombs Islamist stronghold in north Mali
By Bate Felix and Chine Labbé
BAMAKO/PARIS (Reuters) - French fighter jets pounded an Islamist rebel stronghold deep in northern Mali on Sunday 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 intensification on the third day of French air raids, striking at the heart of the vast territory seized by rebels in April.
France is determined to end Islamist domination of north Mali, which many fear could act as a base for attacks on the West and for links with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French intervention on Friday had prevented the advancing rebels from seizing Bamako. He vowed that air strikes would continue.
"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.
In Gao, a dusty town on the banks of the Niger river where Islamists have imposed an extreme form of sharia law, residents said French jets pounded the airport and rebel positions. A huge cloud of black smoke rose from the militants' camp in the city's north, and pick-up trucks ferried dead and wounded to hospital.
"The planes are so fast you can only hear their sound in the sky," resident Soumaila Maiga said by telephone. "We are happy, even though it is frightening. Soon we will be delivered."
Paris said four state-of-the-art Rafale jets flew from France to strike rebel training camps, logistics depots and infrastructure in Gao with the aim of weakening the rebels and preventing them from returning southward.
A spokesman for Ansar Dine, one of the main Islamist factions, said the French had also bombed targets in the towns of Lere and Douentza. Residents said rebel fighters had fled from Douentza aboard pick-up trucks.
France has deployed about 550 soldiers to Mali under "Operation Serval" - named after an African wildcat - split between Bamako and the town of Mopti, 500 km (300 miles) north.
In Bamako, a Reuters cameraman saw more than 100 French troops disembark on Sunday from a military cargo plane at the international airport, on the outskirts of the capital.
The city itself was calm, with the sun streaking through the dust enveloping the city as the seasonal Harmattan wind blew from the Sahara. Some cars drove around with French flags draped from the windows to celebrate Paris's intervention.
AFRICAN TROOPS EXPECTED
More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy, but that image unraveled in a matter of weeks after a military coup in March which left a power vacuum for the Islamist rebellion.
French President Francois Hollande's intervention in Mali has won plaudits from leaders in Europe, Africa and the United States but it is not without risks.
It raised the threat level for eight French hostages held by al Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for the 30,000 French expatriates living in neighboring, mostly Muslim states.
Concerned about reprisals, France has tightened security at public buildings and on public transport. It advised its 6,000 citizens to leave Mali as spokesmen for Ansar Dine and al Qaeda's north Africa wing AQIM promised to exact revenge.
In its first casualty of the campaign, Paris said a French pilot was killed on Friday when rebels shot down his helicopter.
Hours earlier, a French intelligence officer held hostage in Somalia by al Shabaab extremists linked to al Qaeda was killed in a failed commando raid to free him.
President Hollande says France's aim is simply to support a mission by West African bloc ECOWAS to retake the north, as mandated by a U.N. Security Council resolution in December.
With Paris pressing West African nations to send their troops quickly, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who holds the rotating ECOWAS chairmanship, kick-started the operation to deploy 3,300 African soldiers.
Ouattara, installed in power with French military backing in 2011, convened a summit of the 15-nation bloc for Saturday in Ivory Coast to discuss the mission.
"The troops will start arriving in Bamako today and tomorrow," said Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's African Integration Minister. "They will be convoyed to the front."
The United States is considering sending a small number of unarmed surveillance drones to Mali as well as providing logistics support, a U.S. official told Reuters. Britain and Canada have also promised logistical support.
Former French colonies Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso have all pledged to deploy 500 troops within days. In contrast, regional powerhouse Nigeria, due to lead the ECOWAS force, has suggested it would take time to train and equip the troops.
France, however, appeared to have assumed control of the operation on the ground. Its airstrikes allowed Malian troops to drive the Islamists out of the strategic town of Konna, which they had briefly seized this week in their southward advance.
Analysts expressed doubt, however, that African nations would be able to mount a swift operation to retake north Mali - a harsh, sparsely populated terrain the size of France - as neither the equipment nor ground troops were prepared.
"My first impression is that this is an emergency patch in a very dangerous situation," said Gregory Mann, associate professor of history at Columbia University, who specializes in francophone Africa and Mali in particular.
While France and its allies may be able to drive rebel fighters from large towns, they could struggle to prise them from mountain redoubts in the region of Kidal, 300 km (200 miles) northeast of Gao, where April's uprising began.
Calm returned to Konna on Sunday after three nights of combat as the Malian army mopped up any rebel fighters. A senior Malian army official said more than 100 rebels had been killed.
"Soldiers are patrolling the streets and have encircled the town," one resident, Madame Coulibaly, told Reuters by phone. "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.
A spokesman for Doctors Without Borders in neighboring Mauritania said about 200 Malian refugees had fled across the border to a camp at Fassala and more were on their way.
In Bamako, civilians tried to contribute to the war effort.
"We are very proud and relieved that the army was able to drive the jihadists out of Konna. We hope it will not end there, that is why I'm helping in my own way," said civil servant Ibrahima Kalossi, 32, one of over 40 people who queued to donate blood for wounded soldiers.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra, Tiemoko Diallo and Rainer Schwenzfeier in Bamako, Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Leila Aboud in Paris and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Will Waterman)