Mali town counts dead after French strikes on Islamists

28th January 2013, Comments 0 comments

Fresh graves line the rear of a school in the central Mali town of Konna where France launched its military offensive against Islamists on January 11 with air raids that also killed civilians.

The raised humps of earth are the final resting place of members of the family of Idrissa Maiga, a small farmer, whose second wife aged 41, two sons and a daughter perished in the bombings.

"Aminata. Aliou. Adam. Zeinabou," the 51-year-old, staring vacantly, lists the names of his deceased spouse and their children, aged between 10 and 14.

Maiga says they were buried in the afternoon of January 11 itself.

The air strikes, which stopped the advance of Al Qaeda-linked Islamists pushing south from their northern bastion towards the capital Bamako, also led to the death of a French helicopter pilot, the only French casualty so far in the Mali conflict.

The Malian army lost 11 of its troops in the fighting in Konna.

The town, which the Islamists had seized a day before France began its military operations in its former west African colony, lies about 700 kilometres (435 miles) northeast of Bamako.

Town hall officials and Malian soldiers escorting visiting journalists are parsimonious with casualty figures.

But the ravages of war are everywhere, from the charred carcasses of military vehicles, to two enormous bomb craters near the fish market, to pockmarked walls.

Maiga lives near a small green mosque ruined by the bombing which split it in half with only one side standing.

The courtyard of his tiny mud-walled home also bears the marks of shrapnel.

He says his wife and children were enclosed in one room when they were hit. He shows bloodstains on the wall where they were found dead, near a table still bearing small onions that the family sells in the market to get by.

Konna's deputy mayor Demba Samouka evades questions about figures, saying there is "no precise death toll", adding that "maybe four people died in the air raids."

"Maybe seven others were killed by the Islamists themselves when they fired rockets," he says, preferring to speak of "several victims among the Islamist attackers."

Local trader Ali Coulibaly's tiny shack was damaged in the bombings. And right in front lies a charred motorcycle.

"On the 11th, we went to dig graves for our soldiers killed by the Islamists. Because we were scared of air strikes, we ran back to enter the town and that is when the planes bombed this area," the 54-year-old said.

Pointing to dark stains on a thin untarred lane, he said: "This is where the son of Bere Traore died. He was riding a bicycle and lost a lot of blood."

Coulibaly then takes journalists to the grave of Amadou Lacine, a "man of 55 who dug wells.

"He was injured in the head ... and survived for 11 days," and should have been evacuated to hospital in Mopti, 70 kilometres from Konna, "but he was poor and nobody helped him," Coulibaly said, adding: "He died here."

© 2013 AFP

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