Mali’s army said it secured the central town of Konna three days after French fighter jets drove out Islamist rebels, as West African soldiers arrived to join the war in the desert north.
The battle for Konna lasted almost 48 hours, Colonel Didier Dakouo, the head of the central Sevare military base, said on state-owned Office de Radio Diffusion Télévision du Mali yesterday. The town’s fall into rebel hands last week triggered the French intervention.
French forces have targeted insurgents controlling about two-thirds of the landlocked West African nation, which vies with Tanzania as the continent’s biggest gold producer. Neighboring countries are sending as many as 3,300 troops to bolster the effort to restore government control of the north.
French airstrikes have “dealt a serious blow” to the insurgents in the northern town of Gao, Sidi Haidarra, a teacher who fled the town and arrived in Bamako yesterday, said in an interview. “They completely obliterated their main arms and fuel stock. Hundreds of fighters fled the city after the strikes,”
Roads were blocked coming out of the central town of Diabaly, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Bamako, where fighting continued after the insurgents entered the area, Mohamed Koumare, whose wife and child were trapped there, said in an interview in the capital.
Of the 2,300 French troops now involved in Operation Serval, 1,400 are in Mali, the French Defense Ministry said today on its website. About 250 troops from Togo and Nigeria arrived yesterday, it said.
“I called a friend in the army, who said they couldn’t hold Konna and the French saved us,” Daouda Malle, 34-year-old IT specialist, said in an interview. “I know now that I wouldn’t sit talking and sipping tea with my friends if it wasn’t for the French. Everybody is supporting them.”
At least 2,000 African troops will arrive in Mali in less than a week to join a ground offensive, Chaka Aboudou Toure, the representative to Mali of the Economic Community of West African States Commission, said in an interview in Bamako yesterday.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan increased his nation’s contribution to the force 1,200 as troops from eight West African nations started arriving to battle the insurgents. Nigeria’s “national security is under imminent threat or danger as a result of the crises in northern Mali,” he said in a letter to the Senate yesterday.
Militants in neighboring Algeria abducted an unknown number of foreign and Algerian hostages on Jan. 16 at a gas complex operated by London-based BP Plc, Statoil ASA of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach in In Amenas. The kidnappers demanded that the French halt their intervention in Mali.
Algerian forces raided the plant yesterday, and there were conflicting reports about the number of hostages and their captors killed.
The European Union yesterday brought forward the timetable to start a military training mission to Mali by the middle of next month. The 450-member team, which has an initial 15-month mandate, won’t be involved in combat, the EU said.
France intervened after it received a request from interim President Dioncounda Traore. Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. are assisting with air transport.
The insurgents are a mix of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants and Touareg groups demanding greater autonomy for the north. The insurgents number 2,000 to 5,000 fighters, with criminal bands and drugs smugglers on the fringes, according to a report from CF2R, a French institute that does research on intelligence.
Mali’s rebels exploited political instability in Bamako, following a March coup to seize control of the north.
Mali is now led by Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of the coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.
The country ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.
Its $10.6 billion economy contracted 4.5 percent last year and is forecast to expand 3 percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund, slower than the sub-Saharan African outlook of 5.25 percent.
Humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders urged the authorities to grant it access to Konna.
“Despite our repeated requests, the authorities continue to refuse to grant us access to the area of Konna,” Malik Allaouna, the group’s operations director, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “It is critical that neutral, impartial medical and humanitarian aid be allowed into the areas affected by fighting.”
© Copyright 2013 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.