In this Nov. 24, 2012 photo, soldiers from a Malian army special unit stand atop pick-ups mounted with machine guns, following a training exercise in the Barbe military zone, in Mopti, Mali. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, that France, Senegal and Nigeria have responded to an appeal from Mali's President Dioncounda Traore for help to counter an offensive by al-Qaida-linked militants who control the northern half of the country and are heading south. The U.N. chief said that assisting the Malian defense forces push back against the Islamist armed groups is "very important."(AP Photo/Francois Rihouay)
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Islamist militants have been driven out of Konna, a city the extremists captured earlier this week, as French forces have launched military operations in north Mali, a Mali military official said Saturday.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone said the military does not yet control the city of Konna and are still searching for any hidden Islamist extremist elements there.
"The Islamists have been chased out of the city of Konna. We are doing sweeps of the city to find any hidden Islamist extremist elements," said Lt. Col. Kone. "The full recover of the city is too early to determine as we do not yet control the city, and we remain vigilant."
Sanda Abu Mohammed, spokesman for Islamist group Ansar Dine, told The Associated Press he could not confirm if his fighters were still in Konna because communication networks have been down since late Friday.
"I cannot tell you if our fighters are still in the city of Konna or if they are not, because since yesterday afternoon I have not had contact with them as the telephone network has been down in this zone," Mohammed said.
For the past nine months, the militants have controlled a large swath of northern Mali, a lawless desert region where kidnapping has flourished.
France launched airstrikes Friday to help the government of Mali defeat the al-Qaida-linked militants who captured Konna on Thursday, pushing closer to the army's major base in central Mali and dramatically raising the stakes in the battle for this vast desert nation.
French President Francois Hollande said the "terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists" in northern Mali "show a brutality that threatens us all." He vowed that the operation would last "as long as necessary."
France said it was taking the action in Mali at the request of President Dioncounda Traore, who declared a state of emergency because of the militants' advance.
"French armed forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements," Hollande said in Paris on Friday.
He did not give any details of the operation, other than to say that it was aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali, where seven of them already are being held captive.
French commandoes also reportedly attacked an Islamist base in Somalia to try to rescue a French hostage.
The raid early Saturday in Somalia could have been aimed at preventing al-Shabab fighters from harming the kidnapped French security official in reprisal for the French military intervention in Mali. A Somali intelligence official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the case with the news media, said the raid in Bulomarer killed "several" al-Shabab fighters but he had no information on the hostage.
An al-Shabab official confirmed the fighting and said the group held one dead French soldier. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
However, the office of Col. Thierry Burkhard, the French military's main spokesman for overseas operations, said it had no information about any Somalia action.
France has led a diplomatic push for international action in northern Mali but efforts to get an African-led force together, or to train the weak Malian army, have dragged.
The United Nations Security Council has condemned the capture of Konna and urged U.N. member states to assist Mali "in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups."
Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the U.N.
The Security Council authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions. Those include the training of Mali's military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since a military coup last year sent the nation into disarray.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that in Mali, France had carried out airstrikes. He refused to give details for security reasons.
France is operating helicopter gunships in Mali, two diplomats told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation publicly. French special forces, who have been operating in the region recently, are also believed to be taking part in the military operation, one diplomat said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the AP that Senegal and Nigeria also responded to an appeal from Mali's president for help to counter the militants.
The fighting Wednesday and Thursday for Konna represents the first clashes between Malian government forces and the Islamists in nearly a year, since the militants seized the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The Islamists seized the town of Douentza four months ago after brief standoff with a local militia, but pushed no farther until clashes broke out late Wednesday in Konna, a city of 50,000 people, where fearful residents cowered inside their homes. Konna is just 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam.
In recent months, however, the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.
Turbaned fighters control major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did. And like in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.