BAMAKO/PARIS (Reuters/AFP) - Al Qaeda-linked rebels launched a counter-offensive on Monday in central Mali after four days of air strikes by French warplanes on their strongholds in the desert north, promising to drag France into a long and brutal Afghanistan-style ground war.
France intensified its air raids on Sunday using Rafale aircraft and Gazelle attack helicopters to pummel training camps at the heart of the vast area seized by rebels in April, while pouring hundreds of troops into the capital Bamako.
French planes were in action again on Monday. Paris is determined to end Islamist domination of northern Mali, which many fear could act as a launchpad for attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
Launching a counter-attack far to the southwest of recent fighting, Islamists clashed with government forces on Monday inside the town of Diabaly, just 350 km (220 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.
Residents said the rebels had entered the town from the north overnight, approaching from the porous border region with Mauritania where al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM has camps. “They have taken Diabaly ... after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television, adding that French and Malian forces were fighting to dislodge the rebels.
A spokesman for the MUJWA Islamist group, one of the main factions in the rebel alliance, promised French citizens would pay for Sunday’s air strikes in their stronghold of Gao. Dozens of Islamist fighters were killed when rockets struck a fuel depot and a customs house being used as their headquarters.
“They should attack on the ground if they are men. We’ll welcome them with open arms,” Oumar Ould Hamaha told Europe 1 radio. “France has opened the gates of hell for all the French. She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.” France has said its sudden intervention on Friday, after Mali’s president appealed for urgent aid in the face of a rebel advance, stopped the Islamists from seizing the capital Bamako. It has pledged to press on with air strikes in the coming days.
President Francois Hollande says France’s aim is simply to support a mission by the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS to retake the north, as mandated by a UN Security Council resolution in December.
Under pressure from Paris, several regional states have said they hope to have soldiers on the ground this week. Military chiefs from ECOWAS nations will meet in Bamako on Tuesday but regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that training and deploying troops will take time.
More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy, but that image unravelled in a matter of weeks after a military coup in March which left a power vacuum for the Islamist rebellion.
France, which has repeatedly said it has abandoned its role as the policeman of its former African colonies, convened a UN Security Council meeting for Monday to discuss Mali.
Officials in Washington has said the United States would share intelligence with France and was considering sending a small number of unarmed surveillance drones. Britain and Canada have also promised logistical support. Islamists occupying northern Mali pushed further into the government-held south Monday, seizing the town of Diabali, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital, a local government official said.
Meanwhile, a second French commando has died from wounds in Somalia after a failed attempt at the weekend to rescue a French agent held hostage by al Shabaab since 2009, the Somalian rebel group said on Monday.
The al-Qaeda linked group also maintained that the hostage, Denis Allex, who France says it believes was killed during the operation, was still alive.
The militants put up fierce resistance when French special forces went into southern Somalia by helicopter under the cover of darkness on Saturday to try to free Allex.
There was some confusion over the exact outcome of the mission, with the French government saying at one point that one commando had died and the other gone missing and later saying that both appeared to be dead.
“The second commando died from his bullet wounds. We shall display the bodies of the two Frenchmen,” Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, spokesman for al Shabaab’s military operations, told Reuters by telephone.
The UN Security Council enters talks on the Mali conflict Monday, with the major powers broadly supporting France’s military intervention in the crisis.
France has said the council’s first meeting since its troops went into battle against Islamist guerrillas will serve to inform the panel’s 14 other members of latest events and “exchange views” on the situation.
The council and the regional organizations, the African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), are most concerned about when African troops can get to Mali to support the country’s enfeebled army, diplomats said.
The council has unanimously passed three resolutions on Mali, highlighting international concern about the rebels and Al-Qaeda linked groups who took over the northern part of the African country last March. Resolution 2085, adopted in December, authorized the deployment of a proposed 3,300 strong African force.
No one has questioned the legality of France’s move, launched after Mali’s interim president asked for “military” assistance.
Among the council’s other permanent members, the United States and Britain are providing logistical help to the French forces. Russia and China, meanwhile, have signaled they do not oppose France’s blitz against the guerrillas to counter an Islamist offensive into government territory.
“China condemns the recent military attack by anti-government forces in Mali, and has noted that, at the request of the Malian government, relevant countries and regional organizations have sent ground forces and military aircraft to help fight the rebel army,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Monday in Beijing.