French gunships stop Mali Islamist advance

BAMAKO (AFP) – Mali’s army reclaimed a key town from Islamists Saturday after France sent in its air force, opening a dramatic new phase in the conflict with a battle that left dozens of dead rebels strewn across the area.

After France launched air raids to support Malian ground troops fighting to wrest back the town of Konna, Burkina Faso and Niger both announced they were sending 500 troops to join a regional force tasked with ousting the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, who have occupied the vast desert north since March last year and had threatened to advance on the capital.

The Malian army said it was in full control of Konna after the battle, which witnesses and the military said had killed dozens of Islamist fighters — making it one of the worst clashes since the start of the crisis and the most significant setback inflicted on the Islamists.

France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “Operation Serval” had already suffered its first French casualty when a pilot carrying out air raids was killed Friday.

US officials said Washington might support France’s sudden military intervention, while Nigeria also said it had dispatched personnel on the ground.

Russia’s Africa envoy, Mikhail Margelov, lashed out at the French move, saying: “African residents aside, no one else can or should solve the continent’s problems.

“I understand the current situation in Mali, but I think however that any operation in Africa can and should only be done under the aegis of the UN and the African Union,” he said.

But Malian residents thanked France for its support.

“The French really saved us,” said thirty-something Moussa Toure in the capital, Bamako — a remark echoed by others, including Mali’s interim president.

France also said it had deployed troops in Bamako to protect its 6,000-strong expatriate community. The capital has remained under government control throughout the crisis, which erupted in the wake of a March 22 coup that ousted democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.

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