By STEVEN ERLANGER, ADAM NOSSITER and ALAN COWELL
Published: January 14, 2013
PARIS — Matching military power with diplomacy, France called a meeting of the United Nations Security Council for Monday, one day after Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country’s dramatic intervention in Mali had succeeded in blocking an Islamist advance toward the capital that could have had “appalling consequences.”
French forces, he said in a radio interview late Sunday, were now “taking care” of rear bases used by Islamists who took control of much of the north of the country last year after a military coup in the capital, Bamako. The duration of the French operation was “a question of weeks,” Mr. Fabius said, unlike, he insisted, the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
There were few new details on Monday about the French intervention that began on Friday and continued over the weekend. French airstrikes in Mali appeared to halt an Islamist rebel advance, as West African nations authorized what they said would be a faster deployment of troops in support of the weak government.
French aircraft dropped bombs and fired rockets from helicopter gunships and jet fighters after the Islamists, who already control the north of Mali, pressed southward and overran the village of Konna, which had been the de facto line of government control.
The French struck two columns of Islamist fighters, the French Defense Ministry said. The first was in and around Konna, driving out the rebels from the village, and the second was across a river, heading south toward the southern Mali town of Ségou, north of Bamako.
On Sunday evening, French jets attacked the northern town of Gao, an insurgent stronghold.
Abdheramane Oumarou, a local counselor in Gao reached late Sunday after a day of French airstrikes, said: “We are in the best of all possible worlds. The planes have been circling Gao since five this morning. All the of the sites they targeted, they hit. The airport. The warehouses, they destroyed them. These were all sites occupied by the Islamists, and they have been totally destroyed.”
“The Islamists are in hiding. There were many dead,” he said. For the first time since the insurgents overran the town last year, “the population of Gao will sleep soundly, and will even snore.”
Britain announced late on Saturday that it would help to transport foreign troops and equipment to Mali, though would not send its own soldiers to fight. Despite a technical hitch with one of them, two British military transport planes were expected to head for Mali on Monday with equipment including French armored vehicles from a base in Normandy, the British Defense Ministry said.
“There is a very dangerous Islamist regime allied to Al Qaeda in control of the north of that country,” Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday. “It was threatening the south of that country and we should support the action that the French have taken.”
“So we were first out of the blocks, as it were, to say to the French, ‘We’ll help you, we’ll work with you and we’ll share what intelligence we have with you and try to help you with what you are doing,’” Mr. Cameron told the BBC in a radio interview.
Mr. Fabius said the military effort had three goals: to “block the advance of the terrorists, which is done,” to restore Mali’s territorial integrity “which will take more time,” and to secure the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Mali crisis.
“If France had not intervened,” he said, the rebels “could have reached Bamako, with appalling consequences” not only for the Malian population but also for the 6,000 French and other Western citizens living in the capital of the former French colony.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday that the rebels could have reached Bamako in “three or four days” if France had not intervened.
“We will strengthen our operation depending on the situation,” he said on a political talk show.
France now has more than 400 troops in Bamako, mainly to ensure the safety of French citizens and to send a signal to the Islamists, out of a total of 550 troops in Mali. The others, including some special forces, are in the town of Mopti in the south. It has also deployed Rafale jet fighters to attack rebel positions.
“The intervention is still in progress and we will continue,” Mr. Le Drian said.
A French analyst, who is briefed on the situation but declined to be identified by name, said France believed the United States would deliver on promises of in-flight refueling the air campaign, logistical support and reconnaissance.
The analyst said the dilemma facing French forces is now whether to maintain a United Nations schedule for West African and Malian troops to seek to recapture the north in the fall after seasonal rains, “which given the current dynamic seems hard to imagine” or to “speed things up and try to clear the north in the next eight weeks” before the rainy season.
That could extend the duration of the French intervention, the analyst said.
Steven Erlanger reported from Paris, Adam Nossiter from Bamako, Mali, and Alan Cowell from London.