Hollande’s battle to halt Mali rebel push stepped up

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Troops from Mali’s neighbours are expected to join hundreds of French soldiers in the battle to push back Islamic extremists holding Mali’s north.

The fight has left at least 11 civilians dead in its first two days, including three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned trying to avoid falling bombs.

Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria agreed on Saturday to send soldiers, a day after France authorised airstrikes, dispatching fighter jets from neighbouring Chad and bombing rebel positions north of Mopti, the last Malian-controlled town.

State television announced that the African troops, including as many as 500 each from Burkina Faso and Niger, were expected to start arriving yesterday.

Britain has offered the use of its transport planes in order to help bring in the soldiers.

The African soldiers will work alongside French special forces, including a contingent that arrived on Saturday in Bamako in order to secure the capital against retaliatory attacks by the al-Qaida-linked rebel groups occupying Mali’s northern half.

National television broadcast footage of the French troops walking single-file out of the Bamako airport, weapons strapped to their bodies.

The military operation began on Friday, after the fall of the town of Konna on Thursday to the al-Qaida-linked groups. Konna is only 30 miles 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 United Nations had warned that a military intervention needed to be properly planned, and outlined a step-by-step process that diplomats said would delay the operation until at least September of this year.

The rebels’ decision to push south, and the swift fall of Konna, changed everything.

After an appeal for help from Mali’s president, French President Francois Hollande sent in the Mirage jets and combat helicopters, pounding rebel convoys and destroying a militant base. Footage of the jets provided to French TV stations showed the triangle-shaped aircrafts screaming across the sky over northern Mali.

The human toll has not yet been calculated, but a communiqué read on state television said that at least 11 Malians were killed in Konna.

Human rights groups have warned that any military intervention will exact a humanitarian price. The nation of Mali, and the international community, found itself in a Catch-22 because every passing week that the intervention was delayed has allowed the rebels affiliated with al-Qaida 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.

With no clear leader at the head of the country, Mali’s military simply gave up when the rebels arrived, retreating hundreds of miles to the south without a fight.

In the nine months since then, the extremists have imposed their austere and severe form Islam, and those who disobey their rules are beaten with whips and camel switches. Public amputations of the hands of thieves have become a regular spectacle.

They have also used their nine-month siege of the north to dig into the landscape, creating elaborate defences, including tunnels, using the construction equipment abandoned by fleeing construction crews.