A picture released by the French Army Communications Audiovisual Office shows French soldiers getting ready to board a plane to Bamako, the capital of Mali, at Kossei camp in N’Djamena, Chad, on Friday. (AP)
Bamako, Mali, Jan. 12 (AP, Reuters): More than 100 people were reported killed in French air strikes as the battle to retake Mali’s north from al Qaida-linked groups and prevent the formation of a “terrorist state at the doorstep of Europe” was launched in earnest today.
Nations in West Africa also authorised the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September.
Rebels as well as government soldiers were killed during the air strikes and fighting over the strategic town of Konna, Malian military sources and witnesses said.
An army officer at the headquarters of Mali’s former military junta in Bamako said nearly 30 vehicles carrying Islamist fighters had been bombed and “over 100” rebels had been killed in fighting.
“We have driven them out, we are effectively in Konna,” Malian defence ministry spokesperson Lt Col. Diaran Kone told Reuters. “We don’t know if they have planted mines or other traps, so we are moving with caution. There were many deaths on both sides.”
A shopkeeper in Konna said he had counted 148 bodies in four different locations in the town. Among the dead were several dozen uniformed government soldiers. Others wore traditional robes and turbans.
Fighters from the Islamist coalition that currently controls northern Mali do not wear military clothing.
A resident in the town of Gao, the stronghold of the MUJWA Islamist group, said fighters had begun arriving with their dead on Friday.
“Electric power is available at the mortuary, which is not always the case. And the Islamists have bought plenty of burial mats,” the man said.
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 50km of Mopti, the first town controlled by the government 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 dispersing the Islamists who had seized 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 Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal, as well as the weapons abandoned by Mali’s military when they fled their posts in the face of the rebel advance.
In a statement published on an online jihadist forum, a fighter belonging to one of the Islamist groups in Mali, 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.