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Mali rebels gain ground
- Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - From Print Edition


BAMAKO, Mali: Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, including a strategic military camp, bringing them much closer to the capital, French and Malian military officials said.


Early on Monday, the al-Qaida-linked groups cut off the road leading to the garrison town of Diabaly. By afternoon they succeeded in overrunning the town and overtaking the military base, located around 160 kilometres north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday.


The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the region of Segou, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety.


The French military, which began battling the extremists in northern Mali on Friday, expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat.


But the intense assault including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who now are only 400 kilometres from the capital Bamako, in the far south. Before France sent in its forces on Friday, the closest known spot the Islamists were to the capital was 680 kilometres away, in the town of Konna.


France’s defence minister said Monday the rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn’t hold them back.”


The Malian military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency began almost a year ago in the West African nation. The Islamist fighters control the north and had been blocked in Mali’s narrow waist in the central part of the landlocked nation. They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces.


Mali’s government has imposed a state of emergency, giving broader powers to the security forces. Mauritania lies to the northwest of Mali and its armed forces have been put on high alert. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso has sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks.


Many of Mali’s neighbours, who had been pushing for a military intervention to flush out the jihadists, had argued that airstrikes by sophisticated French or Western aircrafts would be no match for the mixture of rebel groups occupying northern Mali.


Leaders of ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, stressed that the north of Mali is mostly desert, and that it would be easy to pick off the convoys of rebel vehicles.


Monday’s surprise assault, and the downing of a French combat helicopter by rebel fire last Friday, is now giving many pause. Monday morning, a commander at the military post in Niono, the town immediately south of Diabaly, laughed on the phone, and confidently asserted that the Islamists would never take Niono. By afternoon, the major, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, sounded almost desperate. “We feel truly threatened,” he said.


The Islamists in northern Mali have long said that if France attacked them, they would strike back at French interests all over Africa and beyond.


In a related development, a French soldier wounded and captured during a failed hostage rescue raid has died, raising fears in France the rebels would stage a “macabre” display of the deceased.


“The French soldier who was part of the invasion to Somalia died (from) the injury he sustained,” Shebab military spokesman Abdulaziz Abu Musab told AFP by telephone. —Agencies




BAMAKO, Mali: A French Rafale fighter jet about to land in N’djamena after pounding Islamist strongholds of Gao and Kidal on Monday.