Mali troops with French air power push rebels back

Malian troops backed by French air power pushed back Islamist rebels in the centre of the country, as African nations pledged troops on the ground, some as early as Sunday, and Britain promised technical support.

French President Francois Hollande hailed the success of the operation, but ordered tighter security at home in case of reprisal attacks from Islamic extremists.

French Mirage fighters carried out a second day of air strikes Saturday to stop the advance of columns of Islamist fighters driving south, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters.

But France suffered one casualty, a pilot killed carrying out air raids, he added.

The Islamist fighters have controlled the north of the country since last March and had been threatening to push south. But Hollande said French air power had halted their advance.

“Our foes have suffered heavy losses,” he said, stressing that the French intervention had “only one goal, which is the fight against terrorism”.

A statement late Saturday from Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore said 11 soldiers had died and some 60 had been wounded in the fighting.

“They fell on the field of honour at Konna,” the central town recaptured from the Islamists on Friday.

Earlier, a Malian officer in the central town of Mopti, near the frontline, said dozens, possibly as many as a hundred Islamists had been killed in Konna. Residents there described the bodies of men wearing Arab clothing and turbans.

Malian troops recaptured the town just a day after it had fallen to the insurgents, who had threatened to continue their southward advance.

Human Rights Watch, citing reports from residents, said at least 10 civilians including three children had died in Konna.

Children forced by the Islamists to fight in their ranks had been wounded and possibly killed in the fighting, said HRW’s Corinne Dufka.

Konna lies some 700 kilometres (430 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, but was in government-controlled territory, near the demarcation line separating the Islamist-controlled north from the rest of the country.

The French intervention appeared to galvanise plans for a UN-approved African intervention force in Mali, which only a few days ago had not been expected to deploy until September.

On Saturday Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal each pledged 500 troops for the force. Ivory Coast’s African Integration Minister Ally Coulibaly said the first elements could arrive as early as Sunday.

“We are not letting up the pressure,” he added. “It is the reconquest of north Mali that has just begun.”

Ivory Coast currently holds the rotating presidency of the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS, which late on Friday cleared the immediate deployment of troops for the force.

The office of British Prime Minister David Cameron told AFP it was sending two military transport planes to Mali to help transport foreign troops and equipment.

But a statement earlier from his office made it clear there would be no British troops on the ground.

On Friday, US officials suggested Washington might offer the French logistical support, including surveillance drones and refuelling facilities.

Hollande said that following the intervention in Mali he had ordered tightener security at home.

France “has to take all necessary precautions” in the face of a terrorist threat including increased surveillance of public buildings and transport, he said.

France has also deployed troops in the Malian capital to protect the former colonial ruler’s 6,000-strong expatriate community.

A failed French commando raid in Somalia overnight Friday to Saturday against Islamist Shebab militants holding an intelligence agent is also thought to have increased the risk of attacks on French targets.

In London, around 60 Islamists including women in veils protested outside the French embassy in London against the intervention, holding placards that read “French army, you will pay” and “Sharia is the only solution for Mali”.

The collapse of Mali, once seen as a democratic success story in the region, had already raised fears that the Islamist-held north could become a haven for extremist groups. Some observers feared their recent advance south threatened the whole country.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Saturday joined the chorus of Western support for the operation, praising the “courageous action by French troops”.

But Russia’s Africa envoy, Mikhail Margelov, lashed out at Paris.

“African residents aside, no one else can or should solve the continent’s problems,” Margelov said.

The Islamists seized northern Mali, a territory the size of France, in the wake of last year’s March 22 coup, which ousted democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.

Captain Amadou Sanogo, who briefly took power after the coup, on Saturday welcomed the French intervention, acknowledging their decisive role in comments broadcast on state television.

Sanogo still plays a key role in the country’s affairs despite having stepped aside in the face of international pressure.

Since taking power in the north, the Islamists have destroyed centuries-old Muslim mausoleums they see as heretical and imposed an extreme form of Islamic law, flogging, amputating and sometimes executing those they see as transgressors.