PARIS/BAMAKO: The French air force carried out an airstrike in Mali Friday in support of government forces trying to push back Islamist rebels, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, as Mali’s interim president declared a state of emergency.
The raid came as France launched a military intervention in the west African state to help the government resist a push south by rebel forces.
“President [Dioncounda] Traore has just decreed a state of emergency. The information will be transmitted on national television this evening,” the official told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
Britain backed France’s decision to give military support to the government in Mali to stem an advance by Islamist rebels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday.
“U.K. supports [the] French decision to provide assistance to [the] Government of Mali in the face of [the] rebel advance,” Hague tweeted.
Western powers fear the alliance of Al-Qaeda-linked militants that seized the northern two-thirds of Mali in April will seek to use the vast desert zone as a launchpad for international attacks.
“French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian army units to fight against terrorist elements,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters. “This operation will last as long as is necessary.”
Hollande said U.N. Security Council resolutions meant France was acting in accordance with international laws.
Earlier, Hollande had made it clear that France would intervene to stop any further drive southward by Islamist rebels as Malian soldiers launched a counteroffensive to wrest back a town captured by militants this week.
The chairman of West African bloc ECOWAS authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, a statement said Friday.
“The chairman, after consultations with his peers and conforming to Security Council Resolution 2085, is deciding to authorize the immediate sending of troops on the ground under the [African-led International Support Mission in Mali] to help the Malian army defend its territorial integrity,” said the statement signed by Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the current ECOWAS chairman.
The statement came after Mali’s army said troops from Nigeria, Senegal and France were deployed in support of government forces in their offensive against Islamists who have advanced to the center of the country.
Mali’s government appealed for urgent military aid from France Thursday after Islamist fighters encroached further south, seizing the town of Konna in the center of the country.
The rebel advance caused panic among residents in the nearby towns of Mopti and Sevare, home to a military base and airport.
“We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence. France cannot accept this,” Hollande said in a speech to diplomats and journalists. “We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues.”
The U.N. Security Council in December authorized the deployment of an African-led force supported by European states.
“The French believe that France, and Europe, face a real security threat from what is happening in the Sahel,” said Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
More than two decades worth of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy in a part of Africa better known for turmoil – an image that unraveled in a matter of weeks after a coup last March that paved the way for the Islamist rebellion.
Residents had seen Western soldiers arriving late Thursday at an airport at Sevare, 60 km south of Konna.
Sevare residents also reported the arrival of military helicopters and army reinforcements, which took part in the counterattack to retake Konna Thursday night in a bid to roll back the militant’s southward drive.
“Helicopters have bombarded rebel positions. The operation will continue,” a senior military source in Bamako said.
A source at Sevare airport also said around a dozen war planes had arrived Friday. A spokesman for the Nigerian air force said planes had been deployed to Mali for a reconnaissance mission, not for combat.
A spokesman for one of the main groups in the Islamist rebel alliance said they remained in control of Konna.
Asked whether the rebels intended to press ahead to capture Sevare and Mopti, the Ansar Dine spokesman, Sanda Ould Boumama, said: “We will make that clear in the coming days.” He added that any intervention by France would be evidence of an anti-Islam bias.
The French Foreign Ministry stepped up its security alert on Mali and parts of neighboring Mauritania and Niger Friday, extending its red alert – the highest level – to include Bamako. France has eight nationals in Islamist hands in the Sahara after a string of kidnappings.
“Due to the serious deterioration in the security situation in Mali, the threat of attack or abduction is growing,” the ministry said in its latest travel alert.
Fabius said Islamist rebels in Mali want to take full control of the country and install a “terrorist state.”
French involvement in the conflict was aimed at preventing the rebels from making further gains and would last “as long as necessary,” he told a news conference.