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BAMAKO,: Mali’s army reclaimed a key town from Islamists yesterday after France sent in its air force, opening a dramatic new phase in the conflict with the battle killing more than 100 people, including rebels and government soldiers.
After France launched air raids to support Malian ground troops fighting to wrest back the town of Konna, Burkina Faso and Niger both announced they were sending 500 troops to join a regional force tasked with ousting the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists, who have occupied the vast desert north since March last year and had threatened to advance on the capital.
The Malian army said it was in full control of Konna after the battle, which witnesses and the military said had killed dozens of Islamist fighters — making it one of the worst clashes since the start of the crisis and the most significant setback inflicted on the Islamists.
France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “Operation Serval” had already suffered its first French casualty when a pilot carrying out air raids was killed on Friday. US officials said Washington might support France’s sudden military intervention, while Nigeria also said it had dispatched personnel on the ground.
Russia’s Africa envoy, Mikhail Margelov, lashed out at the French move, saying: “African residents aside, no one else can or should solve the continent’s problems. I understand the current situation in Mali, but I think however that any operation in Africa can and should only be done under the aegis of the UN and the African Union.”
But Malian residents thanked France for its support. “The French really saved us,” said Moussa Toure in the capital, Bamako — a remark echoed by others, including Mali’s interim president.
France also said it had deployed troops in Bamako to protect its 6,000-strong expatriate community. The capital has remained under government control throughout the crisis, which erupted in the wake of a March 22 coup that ousted democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.
A senior Malian officer said the army was now fully in control of Konna, after spending the best part flushing out the last pockets of resistance. “We control the town, all of it,” said Lieutenant Ousmane Fane. “We have claimed dozens of casualties, even around 100 among Islamist ranks in Konna,” he said.
Witnesses spoke of dozens of bodies strewn across the area, with one resident counting 46 dead Islamists. The town, which had fallen into insurgents’ hands on Thursday, is some 700km from Bamako but was seen as one of the last ramparts against an Islamist advance.
Mali’s armed forces had been in disarray since the March coup and seemed powerless against a rebellion of seasoned fighters, but France’s shock intervention tipped the power balance.
“The helicopters struck the insurgents’ vehicles, which dispersed. The army is mopping up the city,” a Malian military source said. Groups with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) overpowered a secular ethnic-Tuareg rebellion in March 2012 and seized control of the north, a territory the size of France.
They have since destroyed centuries-old Muslim mausoleums which they see as a heresy and imposed an extreme form of Islamic law in the main towns, flogging, amputating and sometimes executing accused transgressors. The collapse of a nation formerly seen as a democratic success story in the region also sparked Western fears that northern Mali could become a major launchpad for global terrorist attacks.
The United States, France — which has eight hostages in the Sahel — and the rest of the European Union had looked set to let regional nations take the lead on any military intervention, which appeared at least several months away.
The UN Security Council had approved a military mission organised by west African bloc ECOWAS, but Mali’s interim administration later warned it could not afford to wait months for a game-changer.
“Our choice is peace... but they have forced war on us. We will carry out a crushing and massive retaliation against our enemies,” Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, said in an address on Friday. Yesterday, he thanked France for its intervention.
French President Francois Hollande, who has struggled on the domestic front and seen his popularity hit record lows, said French forces would remain involved as long as necessary.
He sent the UN Security Council a letter asking for plans to send the 3,300-strong African force to be sped up. Nigeria’s presidency confirmed it had sent an air force technical team and the commander of the planned ECOWAS force to Mali.
“The technical staff from the Nigerian air force are already on the ground in Mali,” Nigerian presidency spokesman Reuben Abati told AFP. “They are not fighters; they are technical staff.”