Mali war escalates as France enters conflict to repel Islamists
BAMAKO - The Malian army said Saturday it was attacking the "last pockets of resistance" by Islamist insurgents in Kona, after recapturing the town the day before with the backing of French air power.
"Malian soldiers are mopping up the last pockets of resistance of the Islamists in Kona," a military source said. The town some 700 kilometres (400 miles) from the capital Bamako had fallen into the hands of insurgents who control the north of the vast west African country last Thursday.
"The helicopters struck the insurgents' vehicles, which dispersed. The army is mopping up the city," the source added.
The Malian army announced late Friday it had recaptured the town amid an offensive against Islamists, who had wanted to conquer the government-controlled south of the west African desert nation.
A French pilot was killed during a helicopter raid to prevent Islamist groups controlling northern Mali from advancing toward the capital, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday.
"During this intense combat, one of our pilots... was fatally wounded," the minister told reporters. The raid was carried out at around 1500 GMT on Friday and was launched to support Mali ground troops in the battle for the key town of Kona.
Authorities in Bamako declared a state of emergency across the country as France warned that the rebels were seeking to transform the vast West African nation into a "terrorist state".
Malian officers said the first objective of the offensive was to retake Kona, a central town that was captured by Islamist forces earlier this week. They confirmed that initial exchanges had resulted in casualties on both sides.
"As in any war, the Malian army has suffered losses, the enemy also," Colonel Oumar Dao told a press conference.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS authorised its members to immediately send troops to Mali, and Dao said Nigerian and Senegalese forces were involved in Friday's offensive.
However, a Senegalese army official denied that Dakar had combat troops in the country.
"We have no combat troops in Mali," the official said, requesting anonymity.
The Malian forces are, on their own, considered too weak and poorly organised to meet the challenge represented by the various Islamist groups who took over the north last year, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by a coup in Bamako.
Hollande gave no indication of the scale of French involvement but said it would last "for as long as is necessary."
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France's objectives were to stop the rebels' advance, ensure the territorial integrity of Mali and defend 6,000 French expatriates, who have been advised to leave the country.
Fabius confirmed that French airpower had been deployed in support of the offensive but was vague when asked if airstrikes had been carried out. "Was there an aerial intervention? Yes," he said.
Hollande authorised the deployment of French forces following an appeal for help from Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore.
"Mali is facing a terrorist threat coming from the north, which the world knows for its brutality and fanaticism," Hollande said.
"France will always be there when it concerns the rights of a population that wants to live in freedom and democracy."
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian briefed his counterparts in the United States, Germany and Britain, which expressed public backing for the French move.
As well as capturing Kona, the rebel forces moved about 1,200 fighters to within 20 kilometres (12 miles) of Mopti, a strategically important town on the frontier between rebel-held and government-held territories.
Hollande said France's support for Mali's action was legitimate in international law and in line with the wishes of the United Nations.
The UN Security Council has already given its blessing for a 3,000-strong African force to be sent to Mali but it will not be ready to deploy before September at the earliest.
That created pressure on France to act quickly, and Hollande acknowledged earlier in the day that the situation had become critical.
"They are trying to deliver a fatal blow to the very existence of this country," he said. "France, like its African partners and the whole of the international community, cannot accept this.
Traore will visit Paris on Wednesday for talks with Hollande.
The Islamists' advance has exacerbated fears of Mali becoming an Afghanistan-style haven for extremists within easy reach of western Europe.
France has led calls for an international response but had, until Friday, insisted that its involvement would be limited to providing logistical support for the force being prepared, slowly, by the west African regional bloc ECOWAS.
That stance changed when the Islamists seized Kona, an advance that opened the door to an assault on the capital, according to French defence minister Le Drian.
"Given the political situation in Bamako, it would not take much for the country to fall into the most total anarchy," Le Drian said.
Le Drian said he had been struck by the level of coordination and military organisation shown by the rebels at Kona.