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French forces drive back Mali rebels

Jan. 12, 2013 - 02:39PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 12, 2013 - 02:39PM  |  
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Commando killed in raid to free hostage in Somalia

MOGADISHU, Somalia — A French commando raid in Somalia to free a captive intelligence agent ended in the deaths of 17 Islamists and a French soldier. France said the hostage also died in the failed rescue, but the man's captors denied he had been killed and claimed Saturday to have seized a second soldier.
Confusion surrounded early reports of the botched rescue of the French agent, known by his code-name Denis Allex. He was captured in the east African country on July 14, 2009, and last seen in a video released in October pleading for the French president to help him.
But it was clear that a dangerous raid the French defense minister said was planned with the utmost of care had gone horribly wrong.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Allex was killed by his captors and that one French soldier was missing and one dead, along with 17 Islamists. The Defense Ministry earlier said two commandos were killed in the fighting in the Somali town of Bulomarer.
"It was an extremely dangerous mission," Le Drian said. "Everything indicates Denis Allex was killed." — AP

BAMAKO, Mali — The battle to retake Mali's north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists from a town seized earlier this week.

Nations in West Africa on Saturday also authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September. The decision to begin the military operation was taken after the fighters, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, decided earlier this week to push even further south to the town of Konna, coming within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of Mopti, the first town controlled by the government and a major base for the Malian military.

Many believe that if Mopti were to fall, the Islamists could potentially seize the rest of the country, dramatically raising the stakes in the nearly year-old conflict. On Saturday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the potential outcome as "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe."

Le Drian confirmed that the French aerial assault, which started Friday in the former French colony, had succeeded in dispersing the Islamists who had seized Konna. He also said that a rebel command center outside the city was destroyed.

However, in a sign of how hard the battle ahead may be, Adm. Edouard Guillaud said that a French helicopter was downed in the battle and the pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated to safety. The Islamists are using arms stolen from ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's arsenal, as well as the weapons abandoned by Mali's military when they fled their posts in the face of the rebel advance.

A military official in Mali said Islamist militants were driven out of Konna, but that the city captured by the extremists on Thursday was not yet under government control.

"We are doing sweeps of the city to find any hidden Islamist extremist elements," said Lt. Col. Diarran Kone. "It's too early to say that we have fully recovered the city."

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In a statement published on an online jihadist forum, a fighter belonging to one of the Islamist groups in Mali, the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO, vowed their fighters would soon conquer the capital, Bamako, according to a transcript provided by Washington-based SITE Intelligence. Contributors to the forum called for fighters to attack French interests in retaliation for the air raids, and began discussing possible targets, including the French embassy in Niger.

The sudden military operation is a reversal of months of debate over whether or not Western powers should get involved in a military bid to oust the militants, who took advantage of a coup in Mali's capital in March to capture the north. As recently as December, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned against a quick military operation, warning that it could open the door to human rights abuses. Diplomats said that September would be the earliest the operation could take place.

All of that changed this week when the fighters pushed south from the town of Douentza, which demarcated their line of control, located 900 kilometers (540 miles) from the capital. By Thursday, they had succeeded in pushing another 120 kilometers (72 miles) south, bringing them nearly face-to-face with the ill-equipped and ill-trained Malian military in a showdown that couldn't be ignored by the international community.

In a statement released Saturday, the bloc representing nations in West Africa, ECOWAS said they had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. ECOWAS commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said they made the decision "in light of the urgency of the situation." He did not provide details on which countries would supply soldiers, but Burkina Faso's Minister of Foreign Affairs Djibril Bassole said that his country would send at least 500 troops into neighboring Mali.

Rudolph Atallah, the former head of counterterrorism for Africa in the Pentagon, said that officials in Washington were in all-day meetings on Friday, trying to chart a course of action. The United States has previously said it will provide logistical support to the military intervention.

A U.S. official confirmed Saturday that the U.S. has offered to send drones to Mali. The official could not be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defense minister, said on Saturday that he was at the Bamako airport to receive a contingent of French special forces from one of their tactical units. Residents in the town of Sevare, near the line of control, said they had seen planes of white people arriving, whom they assume are French soldiers.

In Paris, officials said that hundreds of French troops were involved in the operation, code-named "Serval" after a sub-Saharan wildcat. "The situation in Mali is serious," Defense Minister Le Drian said in Paris. "It has rapidly worsened in the last few days ... We had to react before it was too late," he added.

French intelligence services had detected preparations for an important offensive organized and coordinated by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, and its jihadist allies, Ansar Dine and MUJAO, against the towns of Mopti and Diabaly. After a large number of vehicles were spotted heading toward the strategic town on Thursday, France sent in its first unit to Sevare, a town adjacent to Mopti, to support the Malian combat forces, Le Drian said.

On Friday, French President Francois Hollande authorized the use of French air power following an appeal from Mali's president. Soon after, French pilots targeted a column of jihadist fighters who were heading down toward Mopti from Konna. He said that the helicopter raid led to the destruction of several units of fighters and stopped their advance toward the city. It was in the course of this battle, that one helicopter was downed, and a French pilot fatally wounded.

Overnight Saturday, air strikes began in the areas where the fighters operate, Le Drian said, led by French forces in Chad, where France has Mirage 2000 and Mirage F1 fighter jets stationed.

The strikes destroyed vehicles in Konna, and a command post in the region. A contingent of French special forces arrived at the Bamako airport on Saturday afternoon in order to secure the capital, said Le Drian, where Islamists claim they have sleeper cells ready to carry out suicide bombings.

Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for nearly a decade, operating out of Mali's lawless northern desert. They did not come out into the open until this April, when a coup by disgruntled soldiers in Bamako caused the country to tip into chaos. The extremists took advantage of the power vacuum, pushing into the main towns in the north, and seizing more than half of Mali's territory, an area larger than Afghanistan.

Turbaned fighters now control all the major northern cities, carrying out beatings, floggings and amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did.

Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten and Lori Hinnant in Paris, Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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