A French Rafale fighter jet lands in Ndjamena, Chad, before being deployed in Mali. (Reuters)
Paris, Jan. 14: The French defence ministry said today that a town in central Mali had fallen to Islamist insurgents from the north, hours after foreign minister Laurent Fabius said his country’s dramatic intervention there had succeeded in blocking a rebel advance that could have had “appalling consequences”.
At the same time, an Islamist leader in Mali said France had “opened the gates of hell” for all its citizens by intervening, reinforcing concerns that the far-flung military operation in Africa could inspire vengeance in mainland France.
French forces, Fabius said in a radio interview late yesterday, were now “taking care” of rear bases used by Islamists who took control of much of the north of the country last year after a military coup in the capital, Bamako. The duration of the French operation was “a question of weeks”, Fabius said, unlike the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
But within hours, reports began to emerge of a rebel counterattack in the small town of Diabaly, north of Ségou on the approaches to the capital — the first indication that the insurgents had regrouped after a wave of French airstrikes.
The fighting in the town pitted government forces against rebels seeking to press southward under heavy fire from the air.
Reuters quoted residents and Malian military officials as saying that Islamists counter-attacked after the insurgents infiltrated overnight in small groups. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian Army that couldn’t hold them back”.
The French intervention, which began on Friday and continued over the weekend, appeared to halt the main thrust of an Islamist rebel advance farther east, as West African nations authorised what they said would be a faster deployment of troops in support of the weak government.
French aircraft dropped bombs and fired rockets from helicopter gunships and jet fighters after the Islamists, who already control the north of Mali, pressed southward and overran the village of Konna, which had been the de facto line of government control.
The French struck two columns of Islamist fighters, the French defence ministry said. The first was in and around Konna, driving out the rebels from the village, and the second was to the west, across the Niger river, heading south toward Ségou.
That second column appeared from local accounts to still be advancing, with the rebels taking the small town of Alatona as well as Diabaly, a military camp on a main road to Ségou, the administrative capital of central Mali, according to The Associated Press.
A spokesman for the Malian Army, Lt Col Diarran Kone, confirmed the rebel attack on Diabaly. Le Drian said today that the situation in Mali “is evolving favourably,” but he acknowledged that fighting continued.
“There is still a difficult spot in the west, where we’re dealing with extremely well-armed groups and where the operations are ongoing,” he said.
The rebel takeover of northern Mali began after the fall of Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in October 2011, when Tuareg fighters from northern Mali, who had been fighting alongside Gaddafi’s forces, returned home with weapons from Libyan arsenals.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE