French pilot dies in Mali military operation
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French airstrikes overnight in Mali drove back Islamic rebels from a key city and destroyed a militant command centre, the French defense minister said Saturday. A French special forces helicopter pilot was killed during the fighting.
- Hundreds of French troops join Mali's fight against Islamist insurgents
- French helicopter pilot killed during operation to destroy Islamist command centre
- Mali's army retakes control of the strategic central city of Konna
- Militant group warns France that it will "pay the price" for its actions
- Interim President Dioncounda Traoré to meet Hollande for talks next week in Paris
The Malian army said Saturday it was attacking the "last pockets of resistance" from Islamist insurgents in Konna, after recapturing the town the day before with the backing of French air power.
The town, some 700 kilometres (400 miles) from the capital Bamako, had fallen into the hands of insurgents who control the north of the vast West African country last Thursday.
France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that hundreds of French troops were involved in an operation that destroyed a command center of Islamic rebels in Mali.
A French helicopter pilot died of his wounds in the operation, which involved air strikes on three rebel targets overnight.
Le Drian said France was compelled to act quickly to stop the Islamist offensive, which he said could allow “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe”.
On Friday, Mali’s Islamist militants warned France that it would “pay the price” for its military operation.
“France will pay the price for this action,” a spokesman for the Islamist militants told France24. “We are not weak. We have crushed France in Afghanistan. (...) We don’t have aircraft or missiles but we have our religious beliefs, which will guide us to victory, God willing.”
President François Hollande said France would not stand by to watch the rebels push southward. Paris has repeatedly warned that the Islamists’ seizure of the country’s north in April gave them a base to attack neighbouring African countries and Europe.
“We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence. France cannot accept this,” Hollande, who recently pledged Paris would not meddle in African affairs, said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists.
“There’s absolutely no other major power who could act in the region on such short notice,” said Douglas Yates, a political science professor and Africa analyst at the American University of Paris. “France has prepositioned troops in this region; that has enabled France to act decisively – it stopped the advance.”
But Yates said the hundreds of French troops involved in the operation are not sufficient to retake the Islamist-held north.
“This is a holding operation,” he said.
State of emergency
More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy in a part of Africa better known for turmoil - an image that unravelled in a matter of weeks after a military coup last March that paved the way for the Islamist rebellion.
Mali is Africa’s third-largest gold producer and a major cotton grower, and home to the fabled northern desert city of Timbuktu - an ancient trading hub and UNESCO World Heritage site that hosted annual music festivals before the rebellion.
Interim President Dioncounda Traoré, under pressure for bolder action from Mali’s military, declared a state of emergency on Friday. Traoré will fly to Paris for talks with Hollande on Wednesday.
He said he requested French air support with the blessing of West African allies.
The chief of operations for Mali’s Defence Ministry said Nigeria and Senegal were among the other countries providing military support on the ground. Fabius said those countries had not taken part in the French operation.
The French Foreign Ministry stepped up its security alert on Mali and parts of neighbouring Mauritania and Niger on Friday, extending its red alert - the highest level - to include Bamako. France has eight nationals in Islamist hands in the Sahara after a string of kidnappings.
The families of the hostages said they feared for their loved ones. Jean-Pierre Verdon, father of a hostage, told France24: “We are petrified. Actions are being taken very fast and the situation is extremely intense. We are sitting in front of the TV all the time.”