Just two days after jihadists from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansar Dine stormed the central Malian town of Konna and routed government forces, the French government authorized its military to engage in combat against the al Qaeda-linked groups. French aircraft, including Mirage fighters and attack helicopters, have opened fire on jihadist columns that were advancing south on the towns of Mopti and Sevare. One French pilot was killed after his helicopter was “downed” during the fighting.
French troops are said to be arriving in force in Sevare, where a major airport is located. The Malian military claimed hundreds of jihadist fighters were killed in airstrikes and the town of Konna is no longer under enemy control. From The Associated Press:
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 [Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa], 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.
A spokesman for Ansar Dine told Reuters that French citizens will be targeted.
“There are consequences, not only for French hostages, but also for all French citizens, wherever they find themselves in the Muslim world,” Boumama said. “The hostages are facing death.”
In a sign of the times, the US has offered to send drones to support the operation, but will not otherwise get involved militarily.
The intervention has staved off the very real threat of the jihadist alliance seizing control of the entire country. If the town of Mopti falls, the terror groups would have an open path to the capital of Bamako. The Malian military has shown no capacity to halt the southward advance of the jihadists; Malian forces withered as AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine forces moved into Kanno.
The United Nations, the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and countries such as Algeria have dithered over getting involved in Mali, and weren’t considering sending forces to the West African nation until September 2013. AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Dine have forced their hand by advancing southward.
Also, the same day that France intervened in Mali, its commandos attempted to free Denis Allex, a French intelligence operative held for three years by Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia. French officials were concerned that their involvement in Mali would lead to the execution of Allex. Shabaab repelled the raid and killed one French soldier and captured another.