UN backs French military intervention in Mali
France secured fresh United Nations backing for its military action in Mali and reinforced its ground forces with an armoured column after driving Islamists from their northern bases with air strikes.
But the Islamists struck back in western Mali, capturing the small town of Diabaly from the country's weakened army, highlighting the daunting campaign ahead to restore order in the West African nation.
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Around French 30 armoured tanks and troop transport vehicles crossed from Ivory Coast into Mali Monday, escorted by a helicopter, witnesses told AFP.
A meeting of the 15-nation UN Security Council on Mali expressed unanimous "understanding and support" for the military intervention, France's UN ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters.
The UN said more than 30,000 people had fled the fighting and accused the Islamists of stopping thousands of them from travelling south into government-held zones.
The Islamists said they had made a "tactical retreat" from Timbuktu and other key towns where they have imposed a brutal version of Islamic law for nearly 10 months.
French jets on Monday hit Douentza, 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Bamako, which the Islamists have held since September. But residents said the fighters had left before the warplanes arrived.
In Timbuktu, where inhabitants have been executed or had limbs cut off in some of the worst abuses, the Islamists reportedly fled in anticipation of an attack.
"The mujahideen have left. They are really scared," said one resident in the historic city, where the militants have destroyed centuries-old Muslim monuments.
In Gao, another northern city held by the Islamists, the jihadists were nowhere to be seen after bombing by Rafale warplanes on Sunday, residents there said.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly said in Paris that he believed more than 100 Islamists had been killed in the four days since France launched operations to stem a guerrilla advance towards Bamako.
A spokesman for the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) group, Senda Ould Boumama, said their withdrawal was a "tactical retreat" to reduce civilian casualties, in comments published on Mauritanian news website Alakhbar.
A leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), vowed revenge. "France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," said Abou Dardar of the Al-Qaeda-linked group.
On top of the use of Rafale fighters and helicopter attacks, about 650 French troops are in Mali to halt the Islamist advance, according to the French defence ministry.
The armoured column from Ivory Coast came from France's 450-strong force based there supporting a UN peacekeeping mission.
While jolted by France's arrival, the insurgents remained on the offensive in areas where French troops were not yet operating. The militants seized Diabaly, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Bamako.
"We knew there would be a counter-offensive towards the west," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM Television.
"They have taken Diabaly, which is a small town, after heavy fighting and resistance from the Malian army, which was insufficiently equipped at that exact point."
Le Drian acknowledged that French forces were facing a "difficult" situation in the west, where he said the rebels are well armed.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hailed the "quasi-unanimous" international backing for the offensive.
After his meeting with Fabius, Coulibaly told French television: "We cannot simply push them back, we have to chase them away.
"We simply now cannot allow a timeout for these forces to reorganise."
France and other council countries want to speed up the deployment of a UN-mandated 3,300-strong West African intervention force in Mali.
Nigeria, which will lead the force, plans to have 600 troops on the ground "before next week," President Goodluck Jonathan said. Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged troops.
Britain and Canada have offered military transporters to the French military and the United States says it will share intelligence and provide logistical support.
Algeria said it had closed its 2,000-km (1,250-mile) desert border with northern Mali to stop Islamists crossing into the country. To the west, Mauritania said it had sent soldiers to close its border with Mali.
The Islamists seized upon the chaos of a military coup in Bamako in March to seize northern Mali, sparking widespread international fears that they could set up a terrorist safe haven.
The UN Security Council had given approval for an African-led intervention force, which UN officials said could not be launched until September.
But the Islamist offensive and France's military intervention has led to predictions by diplomats that those plans will be reviewed.
by Serge Daniel Â© 2013 AFP
Source : AFP