Mali Islamists press south, vow to strike back at France
Islamist forces on Monday launched a fresh attack in Mali's government-held south and vowed to strike "at the heart" of France to avenge a fierce military offensive against them.
Security sources reported the jihadists had attacked Diabali, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital Bamako, on the fourth day of the French campaign, which has led to heavy losses in the extremists' ranks.
"The Islamists attacked the town of Diabali today (Monday). They came from the Mauritanian border where they were bombed by the French army," said a Malian security source on condition of anonymity.
He said the Malian army had urgently despatched a helicopter to the town.
A regional security source confirmed the attack, which he said was being led by Abou Zeid, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
France launched the operation alongside the Malian army on Friday as the insurgents threatened to advance on Bamako after months of torpor over a planned African military intervention, which experts had said could only get off the ground in September.
On Sunday, French Rafale fighter planes struck bases used by Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Gao and Kidal, two of the main towns in northern Mali.
Sixty Islamists were killed in Gao alone on Sunday, according to residents and a regional security source.
French warplanes also attacked rebel stockpiles of munitions and fuel near Kidal, a stronghold of rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).
And they hit the town of Nampala some 50 kilometres north of Diabali, as well as a base in Lere, near the border with Mauritania.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday the Islamists had "retreated" in the east of Mali but that French forces were facing a "difficult" situation in the west where rebels are well armed.
A leader of one of the Islamist groups occupying Mali's vast north vowed revenge against France, which is on high alert and has stepped up security on home soil.
"France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," said a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of AQIM.
Asked where they would attack, Abou Dardar told AFP by telephone: "Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa and in Europe."
Another MUJAO leader Omar Ould Hamaha, nicknamed "Redbeard", warned on radio Europe 1 that France had "opened the doors of hell" with its intervention and faced a situation "worse than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia".
In Bamako the French high school was closed on Monday as a "precautionary measure", French ambassador Christian Royer said.
MUJAO's Abu Dardar also referred to France's seven hostages held in Mali. "We will make a statement on the hostages today. From today all the mujahedeen are together."
Algeria on Sunday granted France permission to fly through its airspace to reach its targets. Previously, Algiers was hostile to any foreign intervention in Mali.
-- Timbuktu residents eager for jets to come --
As residents of Gao reported Islamist positions in the town had been levelled by the French airstrikes, those in Timbuktu were eager for French jets to arrive.
"Everyone agrees," said one resident, even if there was a risk that civilians might be killed in such an action. Already, he said, there was growing panic among the Islamists there.
The fabled city has seen some of the worst Islamist abuses over the past 10 months.
At the request of Paris, the UN Security Council was to meet later Monday to discuss the conflict, a spokesman for France's UN mission said.
Aides to Hollande described the militants as better trained and armed than expected.
"What has struck us markedly is how modern their equipment is and their ability to use it," one said, referring to an Islamist hit on a French helicopter, which fatally wounded its pilot, France's only confirmed loss.
Meanwhile a west African intervention force for Mali was taking shape.
The force has been authorised by the UN Security Council to help Mali's government reclaim control of the north. It will be commanded by General Shehu Abdulkadir of Nigeria, which will provide around 600 men.
Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal and Togo all pledged around 500 troops this weekend, while Benin said it would send 300. It remained unclear however when these forces would arrive.
Media reports have said France is deploying about 500 troops in Mali.
The French mission was to reach full strength by Monday, primarily deployed around Bamako to protect the 6,000-strong expatriate community, said its commander, Colonel Paul Geze.
The Islamists took advantage of a power vacuum created by a March military coup to seize control of huge swathes of northern Mali where they imposed a brutal form of Islamic law.
France's intervention has been backed by the European Union, NATO and the United States, while Britain is providing logistical support in the form of transport planes.
Germany said Monday it was considering ways to help France in its mission in Mali such as providing logistical, medical or humanitarian aid.
© 2013 AFP