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Updated: January 14, 2013 23:02 IST

Rebels near key central Mali town

Aman Sethi
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The closest rebels have come to the capital

Four days into a French-led air offensive in northern and central Mali, a convoy of rebels was spotted on Monday approaching Diabaly, a central Malian town only 400 km from the capital.

“Yes it is true that the rebels are fighting near Diabaly,” confirmed Malian army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Diarran Kone, adding that the security situation in this troubled west African country had improved with the arrival of French troops, jets and helicopters last week.

Prior to Monday’s fighting, the rebels had attacked Konna, a key town 700 km north east of Bamako. Monday’s attack on Diabaly in the west-central Mali is the closest the rebels have ever come to the capital city. On Sunday, French jets dropped bombs on a rebel convey 40 km southeast of Diabaly according to the Associated Press. Over the weekend, the jets hit targets deep inside rebel-controlled territory, including the city of Gao.

At least 10 civilians, including three children, have been killed in the operation thus far, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), while news reports have claimed that hundreds of militants have been killed. The Malian army is yet to put a number to the number of soldiers lost to the fighting.

Since early 2012, self-identified Islamist rebels have controlled nearly two-thirds of Mali, an area larger than France. In December last year, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorising an African-led military intervention to drive out the rebels, but U.N. officials said troops were likely to arrive only in September 2013.

Last Thursday, rebels seized the town of Konna, 40 km from the critical army base and airport at Mopti and Sevare, prompting fears of a march on Bamako. The first French troops arrived later that day and regained control of Konna. In a statement to the press, French President Francois Hollande said, “This operation will last as long as necessary.”

NATO response

AFP reports from Brussels:

NATO said on Monday that it supported French efforts to turn back the terrorist threat in Mali but the alliance had received no request for assistance and had not discussed the conflict.

It stressed this was a national operation.

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