Franch Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has announced that hundreds of French troops are involved in
an operation that destroyed a command centre of Islamic rebels in Mali. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)
France's defence minister says hundreds of French troops are involved in an operation that destroyed a command centre of Islamic rebels in the West African nation of Mali.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday that a French helicopter pilot died of his wounds in the operation, which involved airstrikes on three rebel targets
Adm. Edouard Guillaud said a French helicopter had been downed and the pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated to safety.
The French president authorized the operation, which began Friday in the former French colony, to support Mali's government after the Islamists launched an offensive outside the territory they had previously captured.
Le Drian said France was compelled to act quickly to stop the Islamist offensive, which he said could allow "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe."
The al-Qaeda-linked militants have carved out their own territory in the lawless desert region of northern Mali over the past nine months. They recently pressed closer to a major base of the Malian army.
French claim limited success in Konna
A military official in Mali said Islamist militants were driven out of Konna, but that the city captured by the extremists earlier this week was not yet under government control.
"We are doing sweeps of the city to find any hidden Islamist extremist elements," said Lt. Col. Diarran Kone. "The full recovery of the city is too early to determine as we do not yet control the city, and we remain vigilant."
Sanda Abou Mohamed, spokesman for Islamist group Ansar Dine, told The Associated Press he could not confirm if his fighters were still in Konna. "I cannot tell you if our fighters are still in the city of Konna or if they are not, because since yesterday afternoon I have not had contact with them as the telephone network has been down in this zone," Mohamed said Saturday.
West African nations authorize deployment
In a statement released Saturday, ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said the bloc had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. He said they made the decision "in light of the urgency of the situation."
ECOWAS did not say how many troops would be sent to Mali or when they would arrive. It also did not specify which countries from the 15-nation bloc would be providing the forces.
ECOWAS has been talking for months about a military operation to oust the Islamists from northern Mali. While the UN approved a plan for deployment, it had not been expected until September.
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 militant group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons
and train forces.
Turbaned fighters control major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did. And as in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.
French President Francois 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."
France said it was
taking the action in Mali at the request of President Dioncounda Traore, who declared a state of emergency because of the militants' advance.
Hollande has said the operation is aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali, where seven of them already are being held captive .
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