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Radical Islamists hold on to gains in Mali
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BAMAKO, Mali — Radical Islamists held on to a city in central Mali Friday after sending the Malian military reeling in retreat. With the militants showing the capability to press even further into government-held territory, international aid organizations began evacuating staff from the narrow central belt of the country.
French President Francois Hollande said France, which used to rule Mali as a colony, is ready to help to the stop the Islamist extremists. He did not specify what assistance it is prepared to offer. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian wrote on his Twitter account Friday: “On the phone with (U.S. Defense Secretary) Leon Panetta about the Malian crisis. This afternoon with my European counterparts.”
Residents who live near an airport about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the captured town on Konna reported hearing planes arrive throughout the night. Who, or what, the planes were bringing could not be immediately determined.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the capture of Konna and called on U.N. member states to provide assistance to Mali “in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups.”
A regional military intervention to take back northern Mali from the Islamists was not likely before September, though the advance by the al-Qaida linked forces in the desert nation in northwest Africa creates pressure for earlier military intervention.
“France, like its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept that,” Hollande said in a speech to France’s diplomatic corps, referring to the Islamists’ advances.
A top French diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said that France is now able to deploy military assets — notably air power — over Mali “very quickly.”
He insisted that Hollande’s speech is “not just words. … When you say that you are ready to intervene, you have to be.”
However, he declined to provide details about how such military action might take shape. France’s position has been complicated because kidnappers in northern Mali hold seven French hostages.
For months, Hollande has said France would not send ground forces into Mali, and France is sticking to those plans, the official said. But Hollande’s speech suggested that French air power could be used, the official said.
The fighting Wednesday and Thursday over the town of Konna represents the first clashes between Malian government forces and the Islamists in nearly a year, since the time the militants seized the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The Islamists seized the town of Douentza four months ago after brief standoff with a local militia, but pushed no further until clashes broke out late Wednesday in Konna, a city of 50,000 people, where fearful residents cowered inside their homes. Konna is just 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.
“We have chased the army out of the town of Konna, which we have occupied since 11 a.m.,” declared Sanda Abou Mohamed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine militant group, speaking by telephone from Timbuktu.
A soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, acknowledged that the army had retreated from Konna. He said several soldiers were killed and wounded, though he did not have precise casualty figures. “We didn’t have time to count them,” he said.
While Konna is not a large town, it has strategic value as “the last big thing … on the road to Mopti,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
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