First Published: 2013-01-14


Mali Islamists threaten to hit at heart of France as they push south


Local government official reports jihadists have seized Diabaly, some 400 kilometres north of capital Bamako.


Middle East Online

By Serge Daniel – BAMAKO

Will surprise factor help in pushing back Islamists?

Islamist forces on Monday seized control of a town in a fresh attack in Mali's government-held south and vowed to strike "at the heart" of France as it waged a fourth day of airstrikes against them.

A local government official reported the jihadists had seized Diabaly, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital Bamako.

Meanwhile French warplanes launched airstrikes on the town of Douentza, 800 kilometres north of Bamako, residents reported.

"Planes repeatedly bombed the Islamists' headquarters in Douentza. It was destroyed but the Islamists were not there," said a resident on condition of anonymity. Other locals confirmed the report saying the extremists had already fled.

France launched the operation alongside the Malian army on Friday as the insurgents threatened to advance on Bamako after months of torpor over a planned African military intervention to drive out the jihadists.

Experts had said a regional operation could only get off the ground in September.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed the Islamist victory in Diabaly, which put them on the road leading directly to the capital.

"We knew there would be a counter-offensive towards the west," he 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."

He earlier told journalists that while the Islamists had "retreated" in the east of Mali, French forces were facing a "difficult" situation in the west where rebels are well armed.

The attack was led by Abou Zeid, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), said a regional security source on condition of anonymity.

On Sunday, French Rafale fighter planes struck bases used by Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Gao and Kidal, two of the main towns in northern Mali.

Sixty Islamists were killed in Gao alone on Sunday, according to residents and a regional security source. A French helicopter pilot was also killed in fighting, according to the French defence ministry.

French warplanes also attacked rebel stockpiles of munitions and fuel near Kidal, a stronghold of rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).

And they hit the town of Nampala some 50 kilometres north of Diabaly, as well as a base in Lere, near the border with Mauritania.

A leader of one of the Islamist groups occupying Mali's vast north vowed revenge against France, which stepped up security on home soil.

"France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," said a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of AQIM, threatening the country's interests in Bamako, the rest of Africa, and Europe.

Another MUJAO leader Omar Ould Hamaha, nicknamed "Redbeard", warned on radio Europe 1 that France had "opened the doors of hell" with its intervention and faced a situation "worse than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia".

In Bamako the French high school was closed on Monday as a "precautionary measure", French Ambassador Christian Royer said.

MUJAO's Abou Dardar also referred to France's seven hostages held in Mali. "We will make a statement on the hostages today. From today all the mujahedeen are together."

At the request of Paris, the UN Security Council was to meet later Monday to discuss the conflict, a spokesman for France's UN mission said.

Aides to Hollande described the militants as better trained and armed than expected.

Meanwhile a West African intervention force for Mali, authorised by the Security Council was taking shape.

French President Francois Hollande met with Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan on Monday, whose country will lead the intervention and provide around 600 men.

He will also meet with his Burkinabe counterpart Blaise Compaore whose country is providing 500 troops. Niger, Senegal and Togo have also pledged 500 troops each. Benin and Ghana have also promised to send troops.

Media reports have said France is deploying about 500 troops in Mali.

A planned 400-strong European Union military training mission is expected to be speeded up and launched by early February, but would not have a combat role, said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

France's intervention has been backed by the European Union, NATO and the United States, while Britain is providing logistical support in the form of transport planes.

Germany said Monday it was considering ways to help France in its mission in Mali such as providing logistical, medical or humanitarian aid.

The Islamists took advantage of a power vacuum created by a March military coup to seize control of huge swathes of northern Mali where they imposed a brutal form of Islamic law.


Russia prepares retaliation against Turkey

Tunisia to rethink anti-IS strategy

Cameron pushes for Britain to join Syria air strikes

Erdogan denies buying oil from IS

Somali pirates seize Iran fishing boat with 15 crew

Lavrov says no war with Turkey after 'planned provocation'

Tunisia under state of emergency

Missing Iranian diplomat found dead in Saudi

Heavy Russia raids at site of Syria plane crash

Tunisia declares state of emergency after terrorist attack in heart of capital

Bahrain calls HRW torture report 'misleading'

Syria, Russia foreign ministers set Moscow talks

Rival Libya tribes sign peace deal to end months of fighting

Turkey reveals new cabinet of Erdogan allies

Turkey downs Russia Su-24 fighter jet on Syria border

Hopes fade away as Sudan peace talks break without deal

At least 6 dead in Libya bomb attack

ISIS suicide bombers kill four in assault on Sinai hotel

Kerry visits Israel with scant hopes for major breakthrough

Hollande heads to Washington to seek support for war on ISIS

Brussels extends terror alert as US issues worldwide travel warning

UAE blames Islamists for delay in military operation in Taez

Egypt kills 5 Sudanese migrants near border with Israel

Anti-Muslim hate crimes rise 300 percent in Britain

Russia eases restrictions on nuclear cooperation with Iran

Gulf leaders to hold annual summit on December 10

Ex-Gathafi Minister arrested over murder of UK policewoman

UK boosts military spending as pressure grows to join anti-ISIS strikes

Israel bars Palestinians from West Bank settlement bloc

Iraq suspends northern flights due to danger posed by Russia missiles

Syria army advances against ISIS in central province of Homs

Pro-Kurdish leader escapes assassination attempt in Turkey

Tunisia group claims beheading of young shepherd on behalf of ISIS

Kerry arrives in Abu Dhabi for Syria discussions

Three Palestinians killed as fresh violence hits West Bank

Iran arrests ISIS-linked cell near Iraq border

Brussels remains on high alert for second day in a row

Israel seeks to strip citizenship of those who join ISIS

France warns Libya as ISIS gains ground

Fear escalates as ISIS edges closer to Syria Christian town

Iran sentences reporter Jason Rezaian to prison

Egyptians vote in second phase of parliamentary elections

Assad grateful to Russia as army advances on ‘nearly every front’

Obama calls for resolve in face of terrorist threats

Russia bombs ISIS in heaviest strikes since beginning of Syria war