French airstrikes overnight on Friday in Mali drove back Islamic rebels from a key city and destroyed a militant command center, the French defense minister said yesterday.
The al-Qaeda-linked militants, who have carved out their own territory in the lawless desert region of northern Mali over the past nine months, recently pressed closer to a major base of the Malian army, dramatically raising the stakes in the battle for the vast West African nation.
“The threat is a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe,” French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves le Drian said.
The French operation, which started on Friday in the former French colony, came after an appeal for help from Mali’s president.
A French special forces helicopter pilot was killed in the fighting, which involved hundreds of French troops and overnight airstrikes on three rebel targets, Le Drian said.
He said a rebel command center outside the key city of Konna was destroyed.
Sanda Abu Mohammed, spokesman for Islamist group Ansar Dine, said he could not confirm if his fighters were still in Konna.
“I cannot tell you if our fighters are still in the city of Konna or if they are not, because since yesterday afternoon I have not had contact with them as the telephone network has been down in this zone,” Mohammed said yesterday.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali.
However, in recent months the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.
Turbaned fighters control major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did. As in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.
French President Francois Hollande said the “terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists” in northern Mali “show a brutality that threatens us all.”
He vowed that the operation would last “as long as necessary.”
France said it was taking the action in Mali at the request of Malian President Dioncounda Traore, who declared a state of emergency because of the militants’ advance.
Holland has said the operation is aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali.