French airstrikes overnight in Mali drove back Islamist rebels from a key city and destroyed a militant command center, the French defense minister said Saturday, Jan 12, as West African nations authorized the immediate deployment of troops to the country, The Associated Press reports.
The al-Qaida-linked militants, who have carved out their own territory in the lawless desert region of northern Mali over the past nine months, recently pressed closer to a major base of the Malian army, dramatically raising the stakes in the battle for the vast West African nation.
"The threat is a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe," said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The French operation, which started Friday in the former French colony, came after an appeal for help from Mali's president. The fighting involved hundreds of French troops and overnight airstrikes on three rebel targets, said Le Drian. He said a rebel command center outside the key city of Konna was destroyed.
Adm. Edouard Guillaud said a French helicopter had been downed and that the pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated to safety.
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 AP 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.
In a statement released Saturday, ECOWAS 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 U.N. approved a plan for deployment, it had not been expected until September.
Al-Qaida'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.