Mali towns marked by fighting, airstrikes
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Fighting raged in one Mali town, airstrikes hit another and army troops raced to protect a third, on the seventh day of the French-led military intervention to wrest back Mali’s north from al Qaida-linked groups.
Banamba, a town located only 90 miles (144 kilometers) from Mali’s capital was put on alert overnight, and a contingent of roughly 100 Malian soldiers sped there on Thursday after a reported sighting of jihadists in the vicinity, marking the closest that the extremists have come to Mali’s largest city and seat of government.
France has encountered fierce resistance from the Islamist extremist groups, whose reach extends not only over a territory the size of Afghanistan in Mali, but also as much as 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) east in Algeria, where fighters belonging to the cells in Mali kidnapped as many as 41 foreigners at a BP-operated plant, including Americans. They demanded the immediate end of the hostilities in Mali, with a spokesman in Mali, saying that “no foreigner is safe … our movement is now global,” according to Oumar Ould Hamaha who spoke by telephone to The Associated Press.
The first Malian troops arrived in Banamba late Wednesday, with a second group coming on Thursday. The small town northeast of Bamako is connected by a secondary road to the garrison town of Diabaly, which was taken by Islamic extremists earlier this week, and has been the scene of intense fighting with French special forces, who continued bombardments and a land assault there on Thursday.
A city official in Banamba who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly, and who has been involved in getting the Malian troops to defend the town, said they received reports that a rebel convoy had left Diabaly on the road connecting it to Banamba.
“We don’t have a (military) base here, we have no defenses. So the military has come to secure the town,” he said. “From Monday to today, no jihadists have entered our town. But there are reports that a column (of rebel vehicles) was seen heading toward us from Diabaly.”
Civil servant Moussa Kone, the head of the government’s planning, statistics, and territorial management office, said he had seen the soldiers arriving both Wednesday night and Thursday. “They have taken positions in the town, and they are out on patrol.”
France has stepped up its involvement every day, after launching the first air raids last Friday in an effort to stop the rebels’ advance, then only as far as the town of Konna, located 430 miles (690 kilometers) from the capital.
Fighting erupted anew Thursday in Konna between Islamists and Malian soldiers in the city whose capture by the militants first prompted French military intervention, while French forces kept up their bombardments of Diabaly, fleeing residents and officials said.
Meanwhile, France has increased its troops’ strength in Mali to 1,400, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
“The actions of French forces, be it air forces or ground forces, are ongoing,” said Le Drian in Paris. “They took place yesterday, they took place last night, they took place today, they will take place tomorrow.”