Mali Islamists seize town amid French intervention

The BBC's Mark Doyle reports from the Mali capital Bamako, where he is one of the few correspondents on the ground

Islamist fighters in Mali have seized a town in government-controlled territory, though France said the Islamists were "in retreat" elsewhere.

French officials said Diabaly, 400km (250 miles) from the capital, Bamako, was taken in a counter-attack.

France began a military intervention on Friday in an effort to halt Islamists who took control of northern Mali last year and were advancing towards Bamako.

The UN Security Council has convened to discuss Mali at France's request.

Aid workers said many people had been fleeing areas targeted by French air strikes over the past four days.

Start Quote

It is noticeable that already there are questions being asked about the purposes of Operation Serval”

End Quote Hugh Schofield BBC News, Paris

The Islamists began a counter-attack on Diabaly, home to a key Mali army base, on Sunday night, hours after French warplanes had targeted the town.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television: "They took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army that was not able to hold them off at that moment."

One resident told the BBC that the fighting had lasted for about 10 hours.

"About five [rebel] vehicles entered the town," he said. "Now they're stationed about 200m (650ft) from the military camp but they haven't taken the camp. They've killed a few soldiers."

A Malian military source told AFP news agency that rebels had come from the Mauritanian border area after being attacked by French planes.

Rebels 'in retreat'

The BBC's Mark Doyle reports from Bamako that although the Islamists are still hundreds of miles away, the war was felt in the Malian capital as the president visited wounded soldiers in hospital there.

France intensified its air strikes on rebel targets over the weekend, with its aircraft also bombing the town of Gao in eastern Mali. On Monday witnesses told AFP there had been air strikes on Douentza for a fourth consecutive day.

Analysis

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the group that worries the French authorities most, but the view amongst most experts is that it does not currently have the capacity and networks on the ground to carry out a serious attack within France in the short term.

The more immediate worry for France may be retaliation closer to Mali - there are 6,000 citizens in Mali itself but embassies, businesses and private citizens may all be at risk across North Africa.

In the past experts argued that AQIM looked as much like a criminal network as a militant group. However, with the shift of its centre of gravity from Algeria to northern Mali, it acquired a sanctuary which began to change its character.

Paris has clearly decided that the short-term risk of increased threat from intervening is outweighed by the importance of denying a militant group a long-term sanctuary.

"The developments are in line with our expectations," said Mr Le Drian. "The terrorist groups are in effect in retreat."

But he said French forces had encountered "heavily armed militants" in the west, where he described the situation as "difficult".

Rebels of the al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), said that France would pay for its intervention.

Spokesman Abou Dardar told AFP: "France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France."

Separately, militants in Somalia have published a photograph purportedly showing one of two French soldiers killed during a failed hostage rescue attempt. Friday's raid on town of Bulo Marer, south of Mogadishu, came hours after the French intervention in Mali.

At least 11 Malian soldiers and a French helicopter pilot have died in Mali. More than 100 militants are reported to have been killed.

Medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres said it had received numerous reports of people being killed or injured in Konna, and that in Douentza, bombardments and fighting were preventing the wounded from making it to hospital.

MSF said at least 200 people had fled to Mauritania by vehicle, with many more heading to the border on foot.

African troops pledged

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France's involvement would last "a matter of weeks" and rejected any parallel with the protracted Western mission in Afghanistan.

He said preparations were "gathering pace" for the deployment of a West African force, including 600 troops from Nigeria, and 500 each from Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo and Senegal, and 300 from Benin.

"This international mobilisation is essential because France does not want to stand alone alongside Mali," he said.

Foreign forces in Mali

  • Some 550 French troops in Bamako and Mopti
  • French Mirage and Rafale jets
  • Nigeria to send 600 troops; Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo expected to send 500 each, and Benin 300
  • UK providing two C17 cargo planes for French effort
  • France says further logistics help from Denmark and US

France has sent about 550 troops to the central town of Mopti and to Bamako, and a defence ministry official told Reuters troop numbers would increase to 2,500 in coming days.

The UK is offering logistical support, with two cargo planes made available for a week to support French operations.

Islamist groups and secular Tuareg rebels took advantage of chaos following a military coup to seize northern Mali in April 2012.

But the Islamists soon took control of the region's major towns, sidelining the Tuaregs.

One Islamist group, Ansar Dine, began pushing further south last week, seizing Konna.

The town has since been recaptured by Malian troops with French aerial support.

The battle for Mali
Map of Mali French forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist rebels have threatened to advance on the capital Bamako from their strongholds in the north. France said it had decided to act to stop the offensive, which could create "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe".
Mali in 1930s The landlocked area of West Africa was the core of ancient empires going back to the 4th Century. The French colonised Mali, then known as French Sudan, at the end of the 19th Century, while Islamic religious wars created theocratic states in the region.
Mali soldiers fighting against Tuareg, 2006 Mali gained independence in 1960 but endured droughts, rebellions and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. In the early 1990s, the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights.
Rebels The insurgency gathered momentum in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. Tuareg nationalists, alongside Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, seized control of the north in 2012 after a military coup by soldiers frustrated by government efforts against the rebels.
Refugee at UNHCR Mangaize refugee camp in Niger The fighting in the north and the establishment of a harsh form of Islamic law has forced thousands to flee their homes - some estimates say more than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries.
French fighter jet In January 2013, the Islamists captured the central city of Konna. France, responding to appeals for help from the Mali president, has sent about 550 troops to the Mopti and to Bamako, which is home to about 6,000 French nationals. French jets have also launched air strikes.

More on This Story

More Africa stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

Programmes

  • A prosthetic legClick Watch

    How motion capture technology is being used to design bespoke prosthetics

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.