French fighter jets bombed Islamist rebels in Mali for a third day yesterday as Paris poured more troops into the Malian capital, Bamako, awaiting the arrival of a West African force to dislodge Islamist insurgents from the country’s north.
French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian said France’s dramatic intervention on Friday to bomb a convoy of heavily armed fighters sweeping southward stopped them from seizing Mali’s capital within days.
Western countries fear Islamists could use Mali as a base for attacks on the West, forming a link with al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
Le Drian said former colonial power France was carrying out continuous bombing raids against the alliance of rebel groups, which seized the country’s vast desert north in April.
“There are raids going on now: there were some last night and there will be more tomorrow,” Le Drian told French television. “The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe.”
Residents said French aircraft bombed the northern town of Gao, and a Malian rebel spokesman said they bombed targets in the towns of Lere and Douentza.
Le Drian said France was deploying a further contingent of 80 soldiers to Mali yesterday, bringing the total to 550 soldiers, split between Bamako and the town of Mopti, about 500km north. State-of-the-art Rafale fighter jets would be dispatched to reinforce the operation, he said.
Bamako itself was calm yesterday, 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’ intervention.
French President Francois Hollande has made it clear that France’s aim in Mali is to support the deployment of a West African mission to retake the north, endorsed by the UN, the EU and the US.
With Paris pressing West African nations to deploy troops quickly, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara has kick-started the operation to deploy about 3,300 African soldiers.
Ouattara was himself installed in power with French military backing in 2011 after a brief civil war triggered by former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step aside after losing a late 2010 election.
“The troops will start arriving in Bamako today and tomorrow,” Ivory Coast Minister of African Integration Ali Coulibaly said. “They will be convoyed to the front at Sevare.”
Under cover from French fighter planes and attack helicopters on Friday, Malian troops drove the Islamists out of the strategic central town of Konna, which they had seized a day earlier. A senior Malian army official said more than 100 rebel fighters had been killed.
However, military analysts expressed doubt, that this was the start of a swift operation to retake the whole of northern Mali -— a harsh, sparsely populated terrain the size of France — as neither equipment nor ground troops were ready.
In Konna, calm returned after three nights of combat.
“Soldiers are patrolling the streets and have encircled the town,” one resident said by telephone. “They are searching houses for arms or hidden Islamists.”
Another inhabitant said the army set up roadblocks along the route north from Sevare to Konna and was checking for rebels.