Mali: Britain Sends Planes To Help French

Mali’s army has driven back Islamist rebels from a strategic central town after France intervened with air strikes to stop militants controlling the country’s desert north from advancing.

French President Francois Hollande took action in the West African country at the request of interim President Dioncounda Traore who has declared a state of emergency.

Western governments expressed alarm on Thursday after an al Qaeda-linked rebel alliance captured the town of Konna, a gateway towards the capital Bamako 600km (375 miles) south.

Mr Hollande said the “terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists” in northern Mali “show a brutality that threatens us all.” He vowed that the operation would last “as long as necessary”.

For the past nine months, the Islamic militants have controlled a large swathe of northern Mali, a lawless desert region where kidnapping has flourished.

“French armed forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements,” Mr Hollande said in Paris.

He did not give any details of the operation, other than to say that it was aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali, where seven of them already are being held captive.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, when asked whether France had launched air strikes, said: “To the question of whether there was an air intervention, the response is yes.” He refused to give any other details for security reasons.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Senegal and Nigeria also responded to an appeal from Mali’s president for help to counter the militants.

Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the UN.

The Security Council authorised the intervention but imposed certain conditions. Those include the training of Mali’s military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since a military coup last year sent the nation into disarray.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam.

In recent months, however, the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his government was taking action because “in recent days, the situation unfortunately deteriorated very seriously”.

The delay by the international community in taking action allowed “the terrorist and criminal groups of northern Mali … to move toward the south with the goal of … installing a terrorist state,” he added.

The Islamists insist they want to impose Shariah only in northern Mali, though there long have been fears they could push further south.