Islamist fighters in northern Mali have pledged to strike “at the heart” of France, after a joint Malian-French offensive – which has entered its fourth day – began pushing back al Qaeda linked rebels controlling the region.
A military offensive to reclaim Mali’s north from Islamist forces entered a fourth day on Monday, as al Qaeda linked-rebels promised to launch attacks on French soil in retaliation to the government’s decision to intervene in the unstable West African country.
Malian and French soldiers, backed by heavy French military air support, pushed back rebel fighters from the central town of Konna over the weekend, while a dozen French fighter planes, including four Rafale jets, hit rebel targets in the cities of Gao and Kidal, deeper in the country’s rebel-held north. Residents in Gao said French air raids had struck bases and destroyed weapons depots.
Nevertheless, Malian soldiers continued to struggle against well-equipped Islamist militants, who on Monday seized control of the small, central town of Diabaly, putting them 350 kilometres (220 miles) from the capital Bamako.
“They took Diabaly… after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, which was not able to hold them off at that moment,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France’s BFM television.
Also on Monday, Islamists vowed to strike back at France.
"France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," Abou Dardar, a leader of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the Mali-based groups with ties to al Qaeda, told the AFP news agency.
Asked where attacks would take place, Dardar said: "Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa and in Europe."
Mali and France first launched a joint offensive on January 11 against Islamist militants controlling Mali’s north – a vast desert region roughly the size of France. Allied Islamists and Tuareg rebels took advantage of a power vacuum in April, 2012 to overrun the area.
Building up before ground campaign
The operation to retake the north has received the official backing from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Mali is a member, and has been promised logistical support from the United States and Britain.
Malian troops on the ground and around 550 French soldiers deployed so far are awaiting the arrival of a 3,300-stong multi-nation African force. French President François Hollande said French involvement would last “as long as is necessary.”
French army commander Colonel Paul Gèze told Malian television on Sunday that the French military contingency would reach full strength on Monday, but would primarily be deployed around the capital of Bamako to protect the 6,000-strong French expatriate community.
The Malian army was preventing journalists from travelling further north from the town of Sevare on Sunday.
According to FRANCE 24’s Matthieu Mabin, who was in the city of Sevare, residents eagerly awaited the arrival of French troops and supported a ground offensive into rebel-controlled areas. “We have not come across a single Malian who is against France’s intervention,” Mabin said.
“It seems to be that the French intervention has saved Mali,” Alain Mallet, a French national and resident of Sevare told FRANCE 24. “The Islamist groups were a few kilometres from here and everyone knew that the Malian army was completely overwhelmed.”
But Human Rights Watch said ten civilians, including three children, had died as a result of the French bombing campaign in Konna. The London-based rights group said the joint Malian-French offensive posed grave risks to the civilian population, and called on Islamists to release child soldiers they had recruited in Mali and Niger in recent months.
French flag flies in Bamako
President Hollande held a special ministerial meeting to discuss the situation in Mali, a former French colony, on Monday morning. Hollande, whose approval rating has tanked at home since he took office in May 2012, has been championing the cause of an international military intervention among diplomats for months.
The president on Sunday met with members of the Malian expatriate community of France at the Elysée Palace. The group said France had acted with “courage” in taking the fight to Islamists.
“We are proud of the French,” Moussa, a man who fled his native Timbuktu months ago, told France Inter radio. “We have been suffocating and [France] has given us a breath of oxygen. We are ready to fly Malian and French flags alongside each other.”
France's Le Drian told a press conference on Saturday that France had intervened not only because the security of Mali and West Africa were in peril, but because there was also a threat to France and Europe.
Western leaders have warned that northern Mali could become a base of operation for terrorists intent on striking European and American targets. “We have been determined to act for more than six months now,” Le Drian said.
During the press conference Le Drian also confirmed the death of French pilot Damien Boiteux, the first and, until now, only recognised French casualty in the fight to take back the country.
Malian army sources have said that dozens of rebels have been killed near the frontline, including Abdel Krim, nicknamed “Kojak”, a key leader of Ansar Dine, another Islamist group now facing French air power.
Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, said that 11 Malian soldiers had died in fighting over the weekend.
On France’s request, the UN Security Council was also meeting on Monday in New York to discuss international military intervention.