Mali hits back at Islamists with French, African backing
Mali on Friday declared a state of emergency and unleashed an offensive against Islamists who control the north of the country with military backing from France, Nigeria and Senegal.
President Francois Hollande confirmed in Paris that French forces were involved in an attack aimed at repelling Al-Qaeda-linked radicals who have triggered international alarm with a push south towards the capital Bamako.
In the capital, officers said the first objective was to retake Konna, a central town that was captured by Islamist forces earlier this week, and confirmed that initial exchanges had resulted in casualties on both sides.
"As in any war, the Malian army has suffered losses, the enemy also," Colonel Oumar Dao told a press conference.
The colonel also confirmed that Nigerian and Senegalese troops were helping to support Malian forces who are, on their own, considered too weak and poorly organised to meet the challenge represented by the various Islamist groups who seized control of the north last year, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by a coup in Bamako.
Hollande gave no indication of the scale of French involvement in its former colony but said it would last "for as long as is necessary."
Sources said he had decided to authorise the deployment of French troops on Friday morning following an appeal for help from Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore.
"Mali is facing a terrorist threat coming from the north, which the world knows for its brutality and fanaticism," Hollande said.
He said Mali's "very existence", the country's population and 6,000 French expatriates were under threat.
"France will always be there when it concerns the rights of a population that wants to live in freedom and democracy."
France had earlier advised its nationals in Mali to leave the country.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held talks with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and was due to talk to his British and German counterparts later in the day.
The offensive came a day after Mali's government appealed to France and the United Nations for help in pushing back the Islamists.
As well as capturing Konna, the rebel forces had moved about 1,200 fighters to within 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) of Mopti, a strategically important town on the frontier between rebel-held and government-held territories.
Hollande said France's support for Mali's action was legitimate in international law and in line with the wishes of the UN Security Council.
The Security Council has already given its blessing for a 3,000-strong African force to be sent to Mali but it will not be ready to deploy before September at the earliest.
That created pressure on France to act quickly and Hollande acknowledged earlier in the day that the situation had become critical.
"They are trying to deliver a fatal blow to the very existence of this country," he said. "France, like its African partners and the whole of the international community, cannot accept this.
Traore will visit Paris on Wednesday for talks with Hollande.
The Islamists' advance has exacerbated fears of Mali becoming an Afghanistan-style haven for extremists within easy reach of Western Europe.
France has led calls for an international response but had, until Friday, insisted its involvement would be limited to providing logistical support for the force being prepared, slowly, by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS.
That stance changed when the Islamists seized Konna, an advance that opened the door to an assault on the capital, according to French defence minister Le Drian.
"Given the political situation in Bamako, it would not take much for the country to fall into the most total anarchy," Le Drian said.
Le Drian said he had been struck by the level of coordination and military organisation shown by the rebels at Konna.
© 2013 AFP