BAMAKO, Mali – 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.
The three-day-old French-led effort to take back Mali’s north from the extremists began with airstrikes by combat helicopters in the small town of Konna. It has grown to a coordinated attack by state-of-the-art fighter jets which have bombarded at least five towns, of which Gao, which was attacked Sunday afternoon, is the largest.
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.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the intervention after it became clear the swiftly advancing rebels could break Mali’s military defenses in Mopti, the first town on the government-controlled side.
“French fighter jets have identified and destroyed this Sunday, Jan. 13, numerous targets in northern Mali near Gao, in particular training camps, infrastructure and logistical depots which served as bases for terrorist groups,” the French defense ministry said in a statement.
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 Moammar 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.
In addition to Gao and Konna, other targets have included Douentza, Lere and, late Sunday, the small locality of Agharous Kayoune, as well as Alatona, a rice growing region on the strategic route to the military camp of Diabaly, residents and officials said.
Residents are streaming out of the towns that have been hit. In Lere, people were heading across the nearby border to Mauritania.