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Airstrikes among surge in fighting in Mali towns

- Associated Press - Thursday, January 17, 2013

BAMAKO, Mali — Fighting raged in one Mali town, airstrikes hit another and army troops raced to protect a third, on the seventh day of the French-led military intervention to wrest back Mali's north from al Qaeda-linked groups.

Banamba, a town located only 90 miles from Mali's capital was put on alert overnight, and a contingent of about 100 Malian soldiers sped there Thursday after a reported sighting of jihadists in the vicinity, marking the closest that the extremists have come to Mali's largest city and seat of government.

France has encountered fierce resistance from the Islamist extremist groups, whose reach extends not only over a territory the size of Afghanistan in Mali, but also as much as 600 miles east in Algeria, where fighters belonging to the cells in Mali kidnapped as many as 41 foreigners, including Americans, at a BP-operated plant on Wednesday.

The first Malian troops arrived in Banamba late Wednesday, with a second group coming on Thursday.

The small town northeast of Bamako is connected by a secondary road to the garrison town of Diabaly, which was taken by Islamic extremists earlier this week, and has been the scene of intense fighting with French special forces, who continued bombardments and a land assault there Thursday.

A city official in Banamba who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly, and who has been involved in getting the Malian troops to defend the town, said they received reports that a rebel convoy had left Diabaly on the road connecting it to Banamba.

"We don't have a [military] base here. We have no defenses. So the military has come to secure the town," he said. "From Monday to today, no jihadists have entered our town. But there are reports that a column [of rebel vehicles] was seen heading toward us from Diabaly."

Civil servant Moussa Kone, the head of the government's planning, statistics and territorial management office, said he had seen the soldiers arriving Wednesday night and Thursday. "They have taken positions in the town, and they are out on patrol."

France has stepped up its involvement every day, after launching the first air raids last Friday in an effort to stop the rebels' advance, then only as far as the town of Konna, located 430 miles from the capital.

Fighting erupted anew Thursday in Konna between Islamists and Malian soldiers in the city, whose capture by the militants first prompted French military intervention, while French forces kept up their bombardments of Diabaly, fleeing residents and officials said.

Meanwhile, France has increased its troops' strength in Mali to 1,400, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

"The actions of French forces, be it air forces or ground forces, are ongoing," said Mr. Le Drian in Paris. "They took place yesterday. They took place last night. They took place today. They will take place tomorrow."

After a meeting in Brussels of European Union foreign ministers, Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly said it is necessary to mobilize "the entire international community" to help Mali and the region.

"What is happening in Mali is a global threat," Mr. Coulibaly told journalists at a news conference.

"Remember what happened on Sept. 11," he said, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. "It is that terrorism can happen anywhere, at any moment, to anyone."

France is the only foreign power with boots on the ground, but troops from neighboring Nigeria were expected to begin arriving Thursday.

EU foreign ministers on Thursday approved sending a military-training mission to Mali, which will train local soldiers and provide advice but will not take part in combat.

France is planning to deploy a total of 2,500 soldiers, more than half of what it had deployed to Afghanistan at the height of its involvement.

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