BAMAKO, Mali: French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists who seized the area, including its strategic military camp.
A a convoy of 40 to 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast as France prepares for a possible land assault. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving in coming days.
French President Francois Hollande launched an attack on Mali’s rebels, who are linked to al-Qaida, last week after the insurgents began advancing south. France’s action preempted a United Nations-approved plan for a military operation in Mali, which was expected to start about nine months from now. Hollande decided a military response could not wait that long in its former colony.
French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected. Despite France’s five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly on Monday, putting them roughly 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Mali’s capital, Bamako. When the air raids began last week, the closest known point they occupied was 680 kilometers (420 miles) from the capital.
“They bombed Diabaly. They bombed the town all night long. I am hiding inside a house,” said Ibrahim Toure, who irons clothes for a living and happened to be passing through Diabaly on his way to visit relatives, getting caught when the Islamists encircled the town. “It only stopped this morning at around 6 a.m.”
France ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French citizens living in the area of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali located a three-hour drive from Diabaly, according to an email sent by the French Embassy in Bamako.