NAIROBI, Kenya -- Hundreds of French troops poured into central Mali on Friday in a bid to halt the advance of Islamist militants who last spring captured the country’s north and appeared this week poised to seize the remainder of the West African nation.
French aircraft reportedly bombed rebel positions near the town of Konna as troop transports arrived throughout the day to the south at the twin cities of Mopti and Sevare, where a major Malian military base is located.
"Some inhabitants from Konna told us that there are many dead bodies of jihadists hit by the air force," said Pate Thiam, a 33-year-old sales agent living in Sevare who sent his mother to a town further south for safety.
The dispatch of French troops, the first Western response to the growing presence of al Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, came only hours after the rebels had seized Konna, a strategically located central town, and appeared poised to move on the country’s capital, Bamako.
Alarmed by the sudden rebel advance, Malian President Dioncounda Traore sought assistance from France in a letter delivered to French President Francois Hollande on Thursday. French troops began arriving Thursday night, local residents told McClatchy.
"Yesterday, we were really scared," Thiam said. "My house is just opposite the military camp, and military vehicles and ambulances brought many wounded."
"The people panicked," said Fanta Kelly, a medical official in Mopti who said wounded civilians and soldiers overwhelmed that town’s hospital during the Islamists’ offensive.
The panic grew as word spread that Moussa Kusa, an insurgent preacher, had told followers that the Islamists planned to be in Sevare and Mopti by Friday prayers. "All the civil officials rushed to the fuel station with their vehicles to prepare to flee," Kelly said.
But the arrival of the French and the steady stream of aircraft flying in and out reassured local residents on Friday. "The situation seems better,” Kelly said.
"We pray that this will be the end of this unbearable situation," Thiam said.
Britain announced support for the French move, while the U.S. kept mostly mum on the topic, deferring to the French to discuss their involvement. Troops from Senegal and Nigeria also were taking part in the campaign, and the government of Mali declared a nationwide state of emergency. The U.N. Security Council late Thursday called for members to assist Mali.
In Paris, Hollande said that his country’s troops would stay in Mali “as long as necessary” to prevent the West African nation from becoming a new haven for al Qaida-linked extremists. It was not known, however, if the French intended merely to halt the Islamists’ advance or to launch an offensive to return Mali’s desert north to central government control. The area currently under Islamist rule is larger than France itself.
“Mali is facing an assault by terrorist elements coming from the north whose brutality and fanaticism is known across the world,” Hollande said, according to the Agence France Presse news service.
The seizure by militants of northern Mali last spring was an unintended consequence of the U.S.-backed NATO campaign to overthrow the government of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Thousands of desert tribesmen known as Tuaregs, who’d been incorporated into Gadhafi’s army, fled Libya in the weeks after his fall, carrying their weapons with them. The Tuaregs resumed a military campaign to establish a Tuareg-ruled state in the Sahara Desert and quickly seized areas of northern Mali. Al Qaida-linked militants then displaced the secular Tuareg force.
The militants, some of whom were members of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, imposed a rigid interpretation of Islamic law that allowed for amputations and stonings for some perceived crimes. They also destroyed historically significant shrines in the city of Timbuktu that they considered idolatrous.
U.S. officials remained uncertain whether the al Qaida group was a threat to American interests, but the deaths in September of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans deepened concerns. The Libyan government claimed that Mali-based extremists had participated in the attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, and U.S. officials said that some of the alleged attackers phoned fellow extremists in Mali to boast.
The rapid escalation of the conflict this week came as a surprise, however. A military campaign to dislodge the Islamists was being planned by Western nations and Mali’s fellow members of the Economic Community of West Africa wasn’t expected to begin for months, as officials wrestled with how to finance, train and equip the 3,000-man force.
“We’re very happy with France’s decision,” said Ibrahim Garango, part of a pro-government militia positioned in Mopti. Garango, who was reached by phone, said he hasn’t seen any French forces yet and doesn’t know the size of their contingent, but he stressed that any assistance was welcomed.
“These are terrorists and it would’ve been very, very difficult to win against them without help from France,” he said.
U.S. law prohibits direct aid to Mali’s government or military because there have been no new elections since a military coup overthrew the democratic government last year. But U.S. officials said U.S. military assistance could be directed through other international partners, such as the French or the African Union.
“We are monitoring the situation closely," said Department of Defense spokesman Maj. Robert Firman. "We have noted that the government of Mali has asked for support, and we share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven in the region."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the United States is consulting "very closely" with France but that neither Mali nor France has requested direct U.S. military support.
Allam reported from Washington, Boswell from Nairobi, Kenya. McClatchy special correspondent Brahima Ouologuem contributed from Bamako, Mali.