Bamako: What started as a French-led campaign to chase away the Islamists from Mali’s north on the African nation`s request, seems to have turned into a full-fledged combat operation with other countries like US and UK joining to provide communications and transport assistance.
Other than France, seven other nations have joined the operation in Mali with the United States providing communications and transport help, and Britain sending C17 aircrafts to help Mali`s allies transport troops to the frontlines.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Sunday confirmed the US’ contribution.
A US official too, confirmed that America will be sending drones. Britain has dispatched two, C17 aircrafts to France to help Mali`s allies transport troops. Four nations in West Africa have pledged to send hundreds of soldiers, including 500 each from Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal, as well as from Nigeria.
Additionally, Fabius said Denmark and other European countries are also helping, according to an interview with RTL radio. On Monday, the United Nations Security Council will meet to discuss the crisis in Mali, said Brieuc Pont, a spokesman for the French U.N. Mission said.
French and Malian officials say the lightning offensive has halted the rebels` advance. "The Islamist offensive has been stopped," Fabius said. "Blocking the terrorists ... we`ve done it."
French fighter jets bombed rebel targets in a major city in Mali`s north Sunday, pounding the airport as well as training camps, warehouses and buildings used by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists controlling the area, officials and residents said.
The three-day-old French-led effort to take back Mali`s north from the extremists began with airstrikes by combat helicopters in the small town of Konna. It has grown to a coordinated attack by state-of-the-art fighter jets which have bombarded at least five towns, of which Gao, which was attacked Sunday afternoon, is the largest.
More than 400 French troops have been deployed to the country in the all-out effort to win back the territory from the well-armed rebels, who seized control of an area larger than France nine months ago.
"French fighter jets have identified and destroyed this Sunday, Jan. 13, numerous targets in northern Mali near Gao, in particular training camps, infrastructure and logistical depots which served as bases for terrorist groups," the French defense ministry said in a statement.
French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed than they expected, and one of the first fatalities was a 41-year-old French pilot, whose helicopter was downed by rebel fire near the town of Konna.
The Islamists, including three separate rebel groups, all of which have either direct or indirect ties to al-Qaida, are armed with weapons stolen from the abandoned arsenal of ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. They are also in possession of the weapons left behind by Mali`s army, which abandoned the north in the face of the rebel advance last April. The fighters managed to seize the territory in the north after a military coup led to political turmoil in the once-stable nation of 15.8 million last March.
But the intervention has come with a cost to civilians. In the city of Konna, the first to be bombed, 11 Malians were killed, Mali presidential spokesman Ousmane Sy said. The town`s mayor, Sory Diakite, said the dead included three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned while trying to avoid the falling bombs.
In addition to Gao and Konna, other targets have included Douentza, Lere and, late Sunday, the small locality of Agharous Kayoune, as well as Alatona, a rice growing region on the strategic route to the military camp of Diabaly, residents and officials said.
Residents are streaming out of the towns that have been hit. In Lere, people were heading across the nearby border to Mauritania, adding to the hundreds of thousands of refugees already displaced by the crisis in Mali.
However, the rebels still control the northern half of Mali, representing the largest area under the grip of al-Qaida and its allies in the world.
The region is larger than Afghanistan, and throughout it, the bearded and turbaned fighters have imposed their unyielding form of Islam. Music is banned, as are cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol. Women are regularly flogged in public for offenses ranging from not covering their ankles to wearing perfume or make-up.
With Agency Inputs