Mali Islamists vow to strike ‘at heart’ of France
BAMAKO – Islamists based in northern Mali, under daily bombardment by France’s warplanes, vowed yesterday to avenge the assault on French soil as well as in Africa.
“France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France,” said Abou Dardar, a leader of Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), speaking to AFP by telephone.
Asked where they would strike, he said: “Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa and in Europe.”
The French offensive has blocked the advance of Islamist forces towards the capital Bamako from their bases in the north which they have controlled since last April.
On Sunday, French aviation struck at targets in the central Islamist strongholds of Gao and Kidal.
Sixty Islamists were killed in Gao alone on Sunday, according to residents and a regional security force.
The MUJAO official also referred to France’s eight hostages held in the Sahel region.
“We will make a statement on the hostages today. From today all the mujahedeen are together.”
More than 60 Islamists were killed in their bases near the northern Malian city of Gao under intense bombardment by French air power, a security source and residents said Monday.
Several residents reported the deaths, with one telling AFP by telephone: “At night, the Islamists who were hidden in people’s homes came out to collect their comrades’ bodies.”
A regional security source confirmed the reports.
French fighter jets bombed rebel targets in a major city in Mali’s north Sunday, pounding the airport as well as training camps, warehouses and buildings used by the al-Qaida-linked Islamists controlling the area, officials and residents said.
More than 400 French troops have been deployed to the country in the all-out effort to win back the territory from the well-armed rebels, who seized control of an area larger than France nine months ago. What began as a French offensive has now grown to include seven other countries, including logistical support from the US and Europe. The United States is providing communications and transport help, while Britain is sending C17 aircrafts to help Mali’s allies transport troops to the front lines.
French President Francois Hollande authorised the intervention after it became clear the swiftly advancing rebels could break Mali’s military defences in Mopti, the first town on the government-controlled side, located in the centre of this African country. The move catapulted the world into a fight that diplomats had earlier said would not take place until at least September.
French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed than they expected, and one of the first fatalities was a 41-year-old French pilot, whose helicopter was downed by rebel fire near the town of Konna.
The Islamists, including three separate rebel groups, all of which have either direct or indirect ties to al-Qaida, are armed with weapons stolen from the abandoned arsenal of ex-Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. They are also in possession of the weapons left behind by Mali’s army, which abandoned the north in the face of the rebel advance last April. The fighters managed to seize the territory in the north after a military coup led to political turmoil in the once-stable nation of 15,8 million last March.
A French presidential aide who was not authorised to be publicly named said that the insurgents are “well-equipped, well-armed and well-trained,” and are using high-end equipment. “They obtained from Libya modern, sophisticated equipment, much stronger and more efficient than we had imagined,” he said.
One of the commanders controlling Gao confirmed that the French had flattened a building at the northern entrance to the town used by his fighters as a checkpoint and that three of his men died, crushed under the structure’s falling roof. Oumar Ould Hamaha further confirmed that fighter jets had hit training camps and depots.
He egged on the French, calling them cowards and saying that their attack has only heightened the rebels’ desire for jihad. “Our jihadists are not a bunch of sheep waiting to be slaughtered inside a closed pen,” said Hamaha. “Listen closely to me. Our elements are constantly on the move. What they hit is a bunch of cement. France is going to reap the worst consequences possible from this. Now no French person can feel safe anywhere in the world. Every French national is a target.”
Hamaha said he and his fighters drove to a spot around one kilometre outside the city to try to lure the jets away from the population centre and into a direct confrontation. He claims the jets flying at an altitude of 13 000 meters made a U-turn after seeing the anti-aircraft missiles and weaponry mounted on the rebel trucks.
Four nations in West Africa have pledged to send hundreds of soldiers, including 500 each from Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal, as well as from Nigeria.
Additionally, Fabius said Denmark and other European countries are also helping, according to an interview with RTL radio. On Monday, the United Nations Security Council will meet to discuss the crisis in Mali, said Brieuc Pont, a spokesman for the French UN Mission said.
French and Malian officials say the lightning offensive has halted the rebels’ advance. “The Islamist offensive has been stopped,” Fabius said. “Blocking the terrorists ... we’ve done it.”
However, the rebels still control the northern half of Mali, representing the largest area under the grip of al-Qaida and its allies in the world.
The region is larger than Afghanistan, and throughout it, the bearded and turbaned fighters have imposed their unyielding form of Islam. Music is banned, as are cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol. Women are regularly flogged in public for offenses ranging from not covering their ankles to wearing perfume or make-up.