French warplanes attack Islamists in Mali

AIR SUPERIORITY::The air offensive displaced the Islamists from three key towns: Gao, Douentza and Timbuktu, where residents had suffered for 10 months

AFP, BAMAKO

Wed, Jan 16, 2013 - Page 7

French warplanes hit a town newly seized by Islamists in Mali as African troops yesterday prepared to join the offensive which has sent the jihadists fleeing from their northern strongholds.

France on Monday secured UN backing for its campaign launched four days earlier to halt a southward advance on the capital, Bamako, by Islamist fighters who have controlled northern Mali since April last year.

A contingent of 750 French troops has been sent to bolster Malian forces against the well-armed rebels. Defense sources say the force will eventually rise to 2,500.

Since the French air offensive was launched on Friday, the Islamists have fled three key towns under their control: Timbuktu, where residents have suffered some of worst abuses of the past 10 months, as well as Gao, also in the north, and Douentza in Mali’s center.

Though driven from their strongholds by French Rafale fighter jets, the Islamists struck back Monday in the government-held south, capturing the small town of Diabaly about 400km north of Bamako.

French planes hit Diabaly overnight, according to a security source who told reporters at least five Islamists were killed and many injured. A resident of a town some 20km from Diabaly told reporters he had seen armed Islamists fleeing after the strikes.

French President Francois Hollande, speaking from the French military base in Abu Dhabi, said the night’s strikes had “achieved their goal.”

France and other UN Security Council countries want to speed up the deployment of a UN-mandated, 3,300-strong west African intervention force in Mali, held up by disagreements among its contributors.

West African army chiefs were to meet in Bamako later yesterday to plan the deployment.

Nigeria, which will lead the force, plans to have 600 troops on the ground in Mali “before next week,” Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said.

Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged troops.