Hundreds of French troops drive back Mali rebels
BY RUKMINI CALLIMACHI & BABA AHMED Associated Press
Sunday, January 13, 2013
1/13/13 at 6:14 AM
The battle to retake Mali's north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists.
At the same time, nations in West Africa authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September.
The decision to begin the military operation was taken after the extremists, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, decided last week to push even further south to the town of Konna, coming within 30 miles of Mopti, the first town held 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. The potential outcome was "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday.
France scrambled Mirage fighter jets from a base in neighboring Chad, as well as combat helicopters beginning the aerial assault on Friday. They have also sent in hundreds of troops to the front line, as well as to secure the capital. In just 24 hours, French forces succeeded in dispersing the Islamists from Konna, the town the fighters had seized in a bold advance last week, Le Drian said.
Malian military officials said they were now conducting sweeps, looking for snipers.
"A halting blow has been delivered, and heavy losses have been inflicted on our adversaries, but our mission is not complete," French President Francois Hollande said after a three-hour meeting with his defense chiefs in Paris. "I reiterate that it consists of preparing the deployment of an African intervention force to allow Mali to recover its territorial integrity."
However, in a sign of how hard the battle ahead may be, the extremists succeeded in shooting down a French helicopter, the defense minister confirmed. The pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated. The Islamists are using arms stolen from ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's arsenal, as well as the weapons abandoned by Mali's military when they fled their posts in the face of the rebel advance.
They have outfitted SUVs with large-caliber machine guns and have released videos displaying their collection of anti-aircraft weapons.
The Islamists have vowed to retaliate against French interests, and they claim to have sleeper cells in all of the capitals of the West African nations who are sending troops. Hollande announced that he had raised France's domestic terror threat level.
Online in jihadist forums, participants called for fighters to attack French interests in retaliation for the air raids. They discussed possible targets, including the French Embassy in neighboring Niger, one of the countries donating troops, according to a transcript provided by Washington-based SITE Intelligence.
In Washington, a U.S. official confirmed that the country has offered to send drones to Mali. A French official close to the presidency said Hollande spoke with the British prime minister, who offered troop transport aircraft. Neither official could be named because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Original Print Headline: French troops attack rebels
2 Mogadishu, Somalia
French commando dies in Somalia rescue bid
A raid to free a French intelligence agent held captive in Somalia for three years went horribly wrong, leaving 17 Islamists and at least one French commando dead in a farming town deep in militant territory.
In the chaotic aftermath of the firefight, the hostage's fate was unclear Saturday. The Islamists denied French claims that he was killed and said they had a new prisoner - a wounded French soldier.
The rescue attempt in East Africa came the same day French airstrikes in the West African nation of Mali targeted resurgent rebel Islamists. French officials said the two operations were unrelated, but stepped up domestic counter-terror measures to protect public places and transportation networks.
Confusion surrounded early reports of the failed rescue of the French agent, known by his code-name Denis Allex. He was captured in Somalia on July 14, 2009 - Bastille Day - and last seen in a video released in October pleading for the French president to help him.
French soldiers of the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment are seen during a briefing Friday. The battle to retake Mali's north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday. R.NICOLAS-NELSON, ECPAD / ASSOCIATED PRESS