Bamako/Paris - French fighter jets pounded Islamist rebel strongholds deep in northern Mali on Sunday as Paris poured more troops into the capital Bamako, awaiting a West African force to dislodge al-Qaeda-linked insurgents from the country's north.
The attacks on Islamist positions near the ancient desert trading town of Timbuktu and Gao, the largest city in the north, marked a decisive intensification on the third day of the French mission, striking at the heart of the vast area seized by rebels in April.
France is determined to end Islamist domination of northern Mali, which many fear could act as a base for attacks on the West and for links with al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France's sudden intervention on Friday had prevented the advancing rebels from seizing Bamako. He vowed that air strikes would continue.
“The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe,” he told French television.
Residents and rebel leaders had reported air raids early on Sunday in the towns of Lere and Douentza in central Mali, forcing Islamists to withdraw. As the day progressed, French jets struck targets further to the north, including near the town of Kidal, the epicentre of the rebellion.
In Gao, a dusty town on the banks of the Niger river where Islamists have imposed an extreme form of sharia law, residents said French jets pounded the airport and rebel positions. A huge cloud of black smoke rose from the militants' camp in the city's north, and trucks transported the dead and wounded to hospital.
“The planes are so fast you can only hear their sound in the sky,” resident Soumaila Maiga said by telephone. “We are happy, even though it is frightening. Soon we will be delivered.”
Paris said four Rafale jets flew from France to strike rebel training camps, logistics depots and infrastructure around Gao with the aim of weakening the rebels and preventing them from returning southward.
“We blocked the terrorists' advance and from today what we've started to do is to destroy the terrorists' bases behind the front line,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told LCI television.
France has deployed about 550 soldiers to Mali under “Operation Serval” - named after an African wildcat - split between Bamako and the town of Mopti, 500km north.
In Bamako, a Reuters cameraman saw more than 100 French troops disembark on Sunday from a military cargo plane at the international airport, on the outskirts of the capital.
The city's streets were calm, with the sun streaking through the dusty air as the seasonal Harmattan wind blew from the Sahara. Many cars had French flags draped from the windows to celebrate Paris's intervention.
“We thank France for coming to our aid,” said resident Mariam Sidibe. “We hope it continues until the north is free.”
More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy, but that image unravelled in a matter of weeks after a military coup in March which left a power vacuum for the Islamist rebellion.
France convened a United Nations Security Council meeting for Monday to discuss Mali. French President Francois Hollande's intervention has won plaudits from leaders in Europe, Africa and the United States but it is not without risks.
It raised the threat level for eight French hostages held by al-Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for the 30 000 French expatriates living in neighbouring, mostly Muslim states.
Concerned about reprisals, France has tightened security at public buildings and on public transport. It advised its 6 000 citizens to leave Mali as spokespersons for Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda's North Africa wing AQIM promised to exact revenge.
In its first casualty of the campaign, Paris said a French pilot was killed on Friday when rebels shot down his helicopter.
Hours earlier, a French intelligence officer held hostage in Somalia by al-Shabaab extremists linked to al-Qaeda was killed in a failed commando raid to free him.
Hollande says France's aim is simply to support a mission by West African bloc Ecowas to retake the north, as mandated by a UN Security Council resolution in December.
With Paris pressing West African nations to send their troops quickly, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who holds the rotating Ecowas chairmanship, kick-started the operation to deploy 3 300 African soldiers.
Ouattara, installed in power with French military backing in 2011, convened a summit of the 15-nation bloc for Saturday in Ivory Coast to discuss the mission.
“The troops will start arriving in Bamako today and tomorrow,” said Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's African Integration Minister. “They will be convoyed to the front.”
The United States is considering sending a small number of unarmed surveillance drones to Mali as well as providing logistics support, a US official told Reuters. Britain and Canada have also promised logistical support.
Former French colonies Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso have all pledged to deploy 500 troops within days. In contrast, regional powerhouse Nigeria, due to lead the Ecowas force, has suggested it would take time to train and equip the troops. - Reuters