French planes strike targets in northern Mali
Several African countries also sending troops to battle jihadist rebel force
French planes bombed the provincial capital of Gao in northern Mali on Sunday, hitting the airport, a building which served as the headquarters of the Islamic police and a militant base, residents say.
Abderahmane Dicko, a teacher, said that he heard the planes in the sky on Sunday at midday. He says the bombs were dropped on specific locations in the city known to be occupied by the al-Qaeda-linked rebels controlling the town.
The bombardment was confirmed by two other residents.
French President Francois Hollande authorized airstrikes over Mali on Friday, after the Islamists controlling the north pushed even farther south, taking the town of Konna last Thursday.
Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria agreed on Saturday to send soldiers. State television announced that the African troops, including as many as 500 each from Burkina Faso and Niger, were expected to begin arriving on Sunday.
Contingent arrives in capital
The African soldiers will work alongside French special forces, including a contingent that arrived Saturday in the capital Bamako in order to secure the capital against retaliatory attacks by the al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups occupying Mali's northern half.
Hundreds of Malians on Sunday also left the town of Lere for neighboring Mauritania, about 70 kilometers away, to escape the violence.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday that France now has more than 400 troops in Bamako, mainly to ensure the safety of French citizens and also to send a signal to the extremists.
"We will strengthen our operation depending on the situation," he said on a political talk show. Le Drian said that Rafale fighter jets will be part of the operation and that technical support will be arriving in the hours ahead. A senior British official suggested Sunday that UK personnel could also play a role in training the Malian army.
Africa minister Mark Simmonds told Sky News television that "we may well, through a European Union mechanism, provide training and support for the Malian army to give them strength to bring back the integrity of the Malian country in totality.
'Absolutely essential' to help, British official says
"It's absolutely essential, as part of our obligations as a permanent member of the Security Council that we provide assistance when we are requested," he said.
The French military operation began Friday, after the fall of the town of Konna on Thursday to the al-Qaida-linked groups. Konna is only 50 kilometers north of the government's line of control, which begins at the town of Mopti, home to the largest concentration of Malian troops in the country.
The human toll has not yet been calculated, but a communique read on state television late Saturday said that at least 11 Malians were killed in Konna.
Sory Diakite, the mayor of Konna, says the dead included children who drowned after they threw themselves into a river in an effort to escape the bombardments.
"Others were killed inside their courtyards, or outside their homes. People were trying to flee to find refuge. Some drowned in the river," said the mayor, who fled the town with his family and is now in Bamako.
As Mali and the international community took time to prepare for intervention in the north, the rebels affiliated with al-Qaida were able to dig into the terrain, and prepare for war.
The rebels occupied Mali's northern half, an area larger than Afghanistan, in the chaos following a coup in Mali's capital last March.