BAMAKO, Mali - The battle to retake Mali's north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists from a town seized earlier this week.
Nations in West Africa on Saturday also authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September. The decision to begin the military operation was taken after the fighters, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, decided earlier this week to push even further south to the town of Konna, coming within 50 kilometres (30 miles) of Mopti, the first town under government control and a major base for the Malian military.
Many believe that if Mopti were to fall, the Islamists could potentially seize the rest of the country, dramatically raising the stakes in the nearly year-old conflict. On Saturday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the potential outcome as "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe."
Le Drian confirmed that the French aerial assault, which started Friday in the former French colony, had succeeded in pushing the Islamists out of Konna. He also said that a rebel command centre outside the city was destroyed.
However, in a sign of how hard the battle ahead may be, Adm. Edouard Guillaud said that a French helicopter was downed in the battle and the pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated to safety. The Islamists are using arms stolen from ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's arsenal, as well as the weapons abandoned by Mali's military when they fled their posts in the face of the rebel advance.
A military official in Mali said Islamist militants were driven out of Konna, but that the city captured by the extremists on Thursday was not yet under government control.
"We are doing sweeps of the city to find any hidden Islamist extremist elements," said Lt. Col. Diarran Kone. "It's too early to say that we have fully recovered the city."
In a statement published on an online jihadist forum, a fighter belonging to one of the Islamist groups in Mali, the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO, vowed their fighters would soon conquer the capital, Bamako, according to a transcript provided by Washington-based SITE Intelligence. Contributors to the forum called for fighters to attack French interests in retaliation for the air raids, and began discussing possible targets, including the French embassy in Niger.
The sudden military operation is a reversal of months of debate over whether Western powers should get involved in a military bid to oust the militants, who took advantage of a coup in Mali's capital in March to capture the north. As recently as December, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned against a quick military operation, warning that it could open the door to human rights abuses. Diplomats said that September would be the earliest a military intervention could take place.
All of that changed this week when the fighters pushed south from the town of Douentza, which demarcated their line of control, located 900 kilometres (540 miles) from the capital. By Thursday, they had succeeded in pushing another 120 kilometres (72 miles) south, bringing them nearly face-to-face with the ill-equipped and ill-trained Malian military in a showdown that couldn't be ignored by the international community.
In a statement released Saturday, the bloc representing nations in West Africa, ECOWAS said they had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. ECOWAS commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said they made the decision "in light of the urgency of the situation." He did not provide details on which countries would supply soldiers, but Burkina Faso's Minister of Foreign Affairs Djibril Bassole said that his country would send at least 500 troops into neighbouring Mali.
Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defence minister, said on Saturday that he was at the Bamako airport to receive a contingent of French special forces from one of their tactical units. Residents in the town of Sevare, near the line of control, said they had seen planes of white people arriving, whom they assume are French soldiers.
In Paris, officials said that hundreds of French troops were involved in the operation, code-named "Serval" after a sub-Saharan wildcat. "The situation in Mali is serious," Defence Minister Le Drian said in Paris. "It has rapidly worsened in the last few days ... We had to react before it was too late," he added.
French intelligence services, he said, had detected preparations for an "important offensive" organized and co-ordinated by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, and its jihadist allies, Ansar Dine and MUJAO, against the towns of Mopti and Diabaly.
On Thursday, "France quickly sent in a first unit to Mopti-Sevare to support the tactical command, and the Malian combat forces," after a large number of vehicles was spotted, Le Drian said.
Then on Friday, after French President Francois Hollande authorized use of French air power after an appeal from Mali's president the French targeted a column of jihadist fighters who were heading down toward Mopti from Konna. He said that the helicopter raid led to the destruction of "several (jihadist) units and stopped their advance toward the city." It was in the course of this battle, that one helicopter was downed, and a French pilot fatally wounded.
Overnight Saturday, air strikes began in the areas where the fighters operate, Le Drian said, led by French forces in Chad, where France has Mirage 2000 and Mirage F1 fighter jets stationed.
The strikes destroyed vehicles in Konna, and a command post in the region, he said. On Saturday afternoon, a contingent of French special forces arrived at the Bamako airport, said Kone.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for nearly a decade, operating out of Mali's lawless northern desert. They did not come out into the open until this April, when a coup by disgruntled soldiers in Bamako caused the country to tip into chaos. The extremists took advantage of the power vacuum, pushing into the main towns in the north, and seizing more than half of Mali's territory, an area larger than Afghanistan.
Turbaned fighters now control all the major northern cities, carrying out beatings, floggings and amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten and Lori Hinnant in Paris, and Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso contributed to this report.