French Airstrikes in Mali Deter Islamist Rebels

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PARIS -- French airstrikes overnight in Mali pushed back Islamist rebels from a key village and destroyed a rebel command center, France said Saturday, as West African nations authorized what they said would be a fast deployment of troops to Mali in support of the weak government there.

France intervened Friday, dropping bombs and firing rockets from helicopter gunships and jet fighters after the Islamist rebels who already control the north of Mali pressed southward, overrunning the village of Konna. The French, who had earlier said they would not intervene militarily but only help African troops, took action in response to an appeal by the Malian president, and officials said military operations were continuing Saturday.

Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, spokesman for the Malian Army, said some civilians and Malian soldiers had died in the effort to retake Konna. "Zero deaths is not possible," he said. "That is the ideal, but in a military operation, it is not possible." French officials said one French pilot had also died.

France, the United States and other Western nations have been increasingly anxious about the Islamists' tightening grip on the north of the country, which they said was becoming a haven for militants, including those with links to Al Qaeda, who threaten not only their neighbors, but the West. On Saturday, Adm. Édouard Guillaud, the chief of staff of the French armed forces, said that French forces had no plans to extend operations to those northern areas, but would expect to help African forces do the job when they arrive.

"The quicker the African mission is on the ground, the less we will need to help the Malian army," Admiral Guillaud said. He said that more military planes had been sent to Africa for possible use in Mali, and that Rafale fighter jets could strike from France. "We are in the buildup phase of operations," he said.

The French president, François Hollande, said that the current French mission -- named "Serval," after an African wild cat -- would last "as long as necessary," but he also stressed that it was limited to "preparing for the deployment of an African intervention force."

France and the United States aim to assist African and Malian troops to restore government authority in the north by providing surveillance and intelligence, including the use of spy planes and drones, as well as helping with logistics and the transport of troops and equipment.

French officials said they had asked Washington to speed up its contribution by sending drones to improve surveillance over the vast area of northern Mali. The French have only two such drones. The Americans are also expected to help with refueling aircraft, and the Pentagon is reported to be studying the French request.

The United Nations Security Council had earlier agreed that troops from the 15-nation regional bloc known as Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, and European Union trainers for the Malian army would help the fragile government in Bamako win back the north of the country, where the Islamists have set up harsh rule under Shariah law in the nine months since the army fled the area. But both groups had been slow to deploy.

With the fall of Konna and the movement of the Islamist fighters south, the Ecowas commission president, Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo, said Saturday that the group had authorized an immediate deployment of troops "in light of the urgency of the situation," according to news reports. But he did not specify how many troops would be sent to Mali.

"By Monday by the latest, the troops will be there or will have started to arrive," said Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's African Integration Minister.

Most of the Ecowas troops are expected to come from Nigeria, Niger, Senegal and Togo and be commanded by a Nigerian general. Ecowas hopes for some 3,300 troops. In a brief televised statement on Saturday evening, Mr. Hollande said that as a result of the Mali intervention, he had asked for increased security at government buildings and in public spaces in France.

In the fighting on Friday, one French helicopter pilot, Lt. Damien Boiteux, died from small-arms fire, the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said at a news conference. Mr. Le Drian said French airstrikes had driven the Islamists back from Konna, but it remained unclear if Malian forces had established control. Konna is about 45 miles north of Mopti, a port city on the Niger River that the Mali government feels it cannot lose.

A spokesman for the Islamist group Ansar Dine told The Associated Press that he could not confirm if some of the group's fighters were still in Konna. The spokesman, Sanda Ould Boumama, told Reuters that French intervention in Mali will have "consequences, not only for French hostages, but also for all French citizens wherever they find themselves in the Muslim world."

Fear of those consequences, at least for several French hostages held in North Africa, may have been a motivation for a failed French rescue mission early on Saturday in Somalia, where French commandos tried to free a French intelligence agent held there since 2009. Mr. Hollande said the hostage died.

Mr. Le Drian said that France needed to act in Mali to forestall the collapse of the government there and the establishment of another area controlled by radical Islamists. "The threat is the establishment of a terrorist state within range of Europe and of France," he said. France is also acting because it has some 6,000 citizens in Mali, a former French colony. Hundreds of French troops have been moved into Bamako to protect citizens there.

Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Bamako, Mali.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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