BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French fighter jets bombarded the major northern city of Gao on Sunday, pounding the airport, as well as the training camps, warehouses and buildings used by the al-Qaida-linked rebel group controlling the city, according to residents and a statement from the French Ministry of Defense.
Now in its third-day, the French-led effort to take back Mali's north from the extremists occupying it has included airstrikes by jets and combat helicopters on at least four northern towns, of which Gao is the largest. Some 400 French troops have been deployed to the country in the all-out effort to win back the territory from the well-armed rebels, who seized control of an area larger than France itself following a coup in Mali in March.
"French fighter jets have identified and destroyed this Sunday, Jan. 13, numerous targets in northern Mali near Gao, in particular training camps, infrastructure and logistical depots which served as bases for terrorist groups," said the statement from the ministry of defense. It said the action was taken,"In keeping with the mission that has been entrusted to our armed forces."
Residents of the city of Gao confirmed that the targets included the city's airport, as well as the building that served as the base for the town's feared Islamic police, which has carried out numerous Shariah punishments including the public amputations of accused thieves. Gao resident Abderahmane Dicko, a public school teacher, said he and his neighbors heard the jets streaming across the sky between noon and 1 p.m. local time.
"We saw the war planes circling. They were targeting the camps used by the Islamists. They only hit their bases. They didn't shoot at the population," he said.
But the intervention has come with a human cost in the city of Konna, the first to be bombed on Friday and Saturday. A Mali presidential spokesman Ousmane Sy said that 11 Malians were killed. The town's mayor, Sory Diakite, said the dead included three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned trying to avoid the falling bombs.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the military operation, code-named "Serval" for a sub-Saharan wildcat, after it became clear that the advancing rebels could push past the defenses in the town of Mopti, the first town on the government-controlled side, which has the largest concentration of Malian soldiers. The decision catapulted the world and Mali's neighbors into a military operation that diplomats had earlier said would not take place until at least September. France's defense minister said that they had no choice, due to the swift, rebel advance.
On Saturday, the body representing nations in West Africa announced that they would send hundreds of troops of their own, including at least 500 each from Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal, as well as from Nigeria. They will work alongside French special forces, including a contingent that arrived Saturday in Bamako to secure the capital against retaliatory attacks by the al-Qaida-linked groups occupying Mali's northern half. National television broadcast footage of the French troops walking single-file out of the Bamako airport on Saturday, weapons strapped to their bodies or held over their shoulders.
Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley in Paris; Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania; Robbie Corey-Boulet in Ivory Coast and Cassandra Vinograd and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.