French troops fight Islamist insurgents in battle for Mali

FRENCH troops launched military action in the north-west African country of Mali after Socialist president François Hollande pledged to help the Bamako government repel a push by Islamist rebels in the north of the former colony.

Mr Hollande said the operation would last “as long as [was] necessary” and was in accordance with international law.

Islamists belonging to the Ansar Dine group, led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, held on to Konna in the centre of the country on Friday. The Malian military had launched an offensive to try to win back control of the city that was overrun on Thursday.

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With the militants showing the capability to press even further into government-held areas, international aid organisations began evacuating staff from the narrow central belt. The United Nations Security Council condemned the capture of Konna and called on UN member states to provide assistance to Mali “in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organisations and associated groups.”

Western powers fear the alliance of al-Qaeda-linked militants that seized the northern two-thirds of Mali in April will seek to use the vast desert zone as a launchpad for international attacks.

Mali’s government appealed for urgent military aid from France on Thursday after Islamist fighters encroached further south. Yesterday, Mr Hollande confirmed he would meet that request.

“French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian army units to fight against terrorist elements,” Mr Hollande said. “This operation will last as long as is necessary.”

A top French diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that France was now able to deploy military assets – notably air power – over Mali. However, he declined to provide details about how military action might develop. France’s position has been complicated because kidnappers in northern Mali hold seven French hostages.

For months, Mr Hollande has said France would not send ground forces into Mali, and France was sticking to those plans, the official said.

More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy in a part of Africa better known for turmoil – an image that unravelled in anmatter of weeks after a coup last March that paved the way for the Islamist rebellion.

The fighting this week in Konna represents the first clashes between Malian government forces and the Islamists in nearly a year, when the militants seized the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

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They took the town of Douentza four months ago after a brief stand-off with local militia, but pushed no further until clashes broke out late on Wednesday in Konna, a city of 50,000 people, where residents cowered inside their homes as rebels swept in. Konna is just 45 miles north of the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.

The Islamists insist they want to impose Sharia law only in northern Mali, though there long have been fears they could push further south. Bamako, the capital, is 435 miles from Islamist-held territory.

The retreat by the Malian military raises questions about its ability to participate in a regional intervention.

Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a plan for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations. The UN Security Council authorised the intervention with conditions. Those include training Mali’s military, which has been accused of human rights abuses in the wake of an army coup last year. The rebels include a hard core of Tuareg mercenaries who returned to Mali having fought in Libya for Col Muammar al-Gaddafi.