PARIS/BAMAKO, (Reuters) – Malian government troops drove back Islamist rebels from a strategic central town after France intervened yesterday with air strikes to halt advances by the militants controlling the country’s desert north.
Western governments, particularly former colonial power France, had voiced alarm after the al Qaeda-linked rebel alliance captured the town of Konna on Thursday, a gateway towards the capital Bamako 600 km (375 miles) south.
President Francois Hollande said France would not stand by to watch the rebels push southward. Paris has repeatedly warned that the Islamists’ seizure of the country’s north in April gave them a base to attack neighbouring African countries and Europe.
“We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence. France cannot accept this,” Hollande, who recently pledged Paris would not to meddle in African affairs, said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists.
The president said resolutions by the United Nations Security Council, which in December sanctioned an African-led military intervention in Mali, meant France was acting in accordance with international law.
In Washington, a U.S. official told Reuters that the Pentagon is weighing options in Mali, including intelligence-sharing with France and logistics support. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that France had carried out air strikes against the rebels to prevent them conquering the whole of Mali. He refused to reveal further details, such as whether French troops were on the ground.
France’s intervention immediately tipped the military balance of power, with Malian government forces quickly sweeping back into Konna, according to local residents.
“The Malian army has retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now,” Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone told Reuters, adding that the army was mopping up Islamist fighters in the surrounding area.
A military operation had not been expected until September due to the difficulties of training Malian troops, funding the African force and deploying during the mid-year rainy season. However, Mali’s government appealed for urgent military aid from France on Thursday after Islamist fighters took Konna.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called yesterday for “accelerated international engagement” and said the bloc would speed up plans to deploy 200 troops to train Malian forces, initially expected in late February.
The capture of Konna by the rebels – who have imposed strict Sharia Islamic law in northern Mali – had caused panic among residents in the towns of Mopti and Sevare, 60 km (40 miles) to the south. Calm returned, however, after residents reported Western soldiers and foreign military aircraft arriving late on Thursday at Sevare’s airport – the main one in the region.