A military offensive to reclaim Mali’s north from Islamists fighters entered its fourth day on Monday, with al Qaeda linked-rebels promising attacks on French soil in retaliation for Paris’s intervention in the unstable West African country.
Malian and French soldiers, backed by heavy French military air support, pushed back rebel fighters from the central town of Konna over the weekend.
A dozen French fighter planes, including four Rafale jets, hit rebel targets in the cities of Goa and Kidal, deeper in the country’s rebel-held north. Residents of Goa said French air raids had struck bases and destroyed weapons depots.
Nevertheless, Malian soldiers continued to struggle against well-equipped rebels, who on Monday wrestled away control of the central town of Diabaly, according to French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “We knew that the key spots would be towards the west… where the most important fighting is going on today,” Le Drian told French BFM television.
Also on Monday, Islamists vowed to strike back at France.
"France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," Abou Dardar, a leader of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the Mali-based groups with ties to al Qaeda, told the AFP news agency.
Asked where attacks would take place, Dardar said: "Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa and in Europe."
Flat-bed trucks carrying humanitarian aid were on standby in the town of Sevare, some 20 kilometres from Konna, where dozens of French soldiers were dispatched to secure the airport.
“It seems to be that the French intervention has saved Mali,” Alain Mallet, a French national and 20-year resident of Sevare told FRANCE 24 on Sunday. “The Islamist groups were a few kilometres from here and everyone knew that the Malian army was completely overwhelmed.”
Mali and France launched a joint offensive on January 11 against Islamist fighters controlling Mali’s north – a vast desert region roughly the size of France. Allied Islamists and Tuareg rebels took advantage of a power vacuum in April 2012 to overrun the area.
Building up before ground campaign
The operation to retake the north has received the official backing from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Mali is a member, and has been promised logistical support from the United States and Britain.
Malian troops on the ground and around 550 French soldiers deployed so far are awaiting the arrival of a 3,300-stong multi-nation African force. French President François Hollande said French involvement would last “as long as is necessary.”
French army commander Colonel Paul Gèze told Malian television on Sunday that the French military contingency would reach full strength on Monday, but would primarily be deployed around the capital of Bamako to protect the 6,000-strong French expatriate community.
The Malian army was preventing journalists from travelling further north from the town of Sevare on Sunday.
According to France 24’s Mathieu Mabin, who was in the city of Sevare, residents eagerly awaited the arrival of French troops and supported a ground offensive into rebel-controlled areas. “We have not come across a single Malian who is against France’s intervention,” Mabin said.
Human Rights Watch said ten civilians, including three children, had died as a result of the French bombing campaign in Konna. The London-based rights group said the joint Malian-French offensive posed grave risks to the civilian population, and called on Islamists to release child soldiers they had recruited in Mali and Niger in recent months...
Posted by Women Against Shariah on Monday, January 14, 2013
From France 24: