French President Francois Hollande said Saturday that two days of French airstrikes had inflicted “heavy losses” upon Mali’s Islamist rebels.
“We forced a halt and inflicted heavy losses on our adversaries,” he said in a statement.
But France’s mission was “not over,” he said. Hollande said that mission was to prepare the way for the deployment of an African intervention force approved by UN Security Council resolutions.
France also deployed troops to protect the capital, Bamako, on the second day of an intervention in support of government forces fighting to keep insurgents who control much of the country’s north out of the south.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French helicopters were continuing to attack rebel positions after forcing the rebels to retreat Friday when they attempted to advance on the central towns of Mopti and Sevare.
Lieutenant Damien Boiteux, a French pilot, was killed in the fighting, he said. President Francois Hollande sent his condolences to the family and said the soldier had been instrumental in protecting Mopti.
On Thursday, the rebels, who overran three northern towns early last year, took the town of Kona, 70 kilometres from Mopti. The military said it was in the process of regaining control over the town.
Diarran Kone, a Malian military spokesman, told dpa the “situation is under control,” but the army was flushing out remaining pockets of resistance.
Meanwhile, French troops have begun deploying in Bamako to protect the local population and French nationals. Le Drian said “a few hundred” soldiers were taking up positions.
Britain said it would provide logistical military assistance of transport planes and equipment to France in the fight against the Islamist rebels. No British troops were to engage in combat operations, but two planes were expected to be deployed within the next 24 to 48 hours.
Nigeria also said it was sending an air force technical team to Mali to aid the military efforts. Commanders from West African regional bloc ECOWAS were expected to arrive shortly in Bamako.
France has 6,000 nationals in Mali. They have been advised by the Foreign Ministry to leave the country. A first flight of French nationals from Bamako landed in Paris Saturday morning, but there were no signs of a wholesale exodus.
Hollande said the security alert level in France would be increased following the start of the French intervention.
He said he asked Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to step up protection of public buildings and public transport.
The European Commission confirmed that its president, Jose Manuel Barroso, will meet with Hollande in Paris Saturday night to discuss the situation.
On Friday evening, shortly after Hollande announced the start of the intervention, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore declared a state of emergency.
In an address to the nation, Traore, who had requested the French aid, said he had agreed the intervention with the regional bloc ECOWAS, which had won a green light from the UN last year to send a West African force to Mali.
“Each and every Malian must now be considered a soldier of the motherland and consider themselves as such,” Traore said.
The US said on Friday it was considering sending logistical and intelligence support.
In Bamako, people cautiously welcomed the intervention.
“I wonder if, by now, without the French army, Sevare and Mopti would not be under the yoke of the Islamists,” Daouda Coulibaly told dpa.
But some were wary of the former colonial power playing a lead role.
“I think the Malian (army) should take the lead with other West African troops. The French could help with logistics,” said Amadou Traore.
France has consistently portrayed the Malian situation as a threat to international security.
Several of nine French hostages being held in Africa are being held by the al—Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb group, which operates across the Sahel region.
Le Drian reiterated that the French would continue “as long as necessary, to prevent the rebels setting up a “terrorist state within reach of Europe.” A spokesman for AQIM warned that France would be digging “the tombs of (its) sons” if the operation continued, according to the Mauritania—based Sahara Media website.