BAMAKO, Mali — The battle to retake Mali’s north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists.
At the same time, nations in West Africa authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September.
The decision to begin the military operation was taken after the fighters, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, decided last week to push even farther south to the town of Konna, coming within 30 miles of Mopti, the first town held by the government and a major base for the Malian military.
Many believe that if Mopti were to fall, the Islamists could seize the rest of the country, dramatically raising the stakes. The potential outcome was “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday. France is also acting because it has some 6,000 citizens in Mali, a former French colony. French troops have been moved into Bamako, the capital, to protect citizens there.
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In addition to France, the United States and other Western nations have been increasingly anxious about the Islamists’ tightening grip on the north of the country, which they said was becoming a haven for militants, including those with links to al-Qaida, who threaten not only their neighbors, but the West. On Saturday, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, chief of staff of the French armed forces, said French forces had no plans to extend operations to northern areas controlled by the Islamists, but would expect to help African forces do the job when they arrive.
France scrambled Mirage fighter jets from a base in neighboring Chad, and combat helicopters began the aerial assault Friday. The French also sent hundreds of troops to the front line to secure Bamako. In 24 hours, French forces succeeded in driving the Islamists from Konna, Le Drian said.
Malian military officials said they were conducting sweeps, looking for snipers.
“A halting blow has been delivered, and heavy losses have been inflicted on our adversaries, but our mission is not complete,” French President François Hollande said after meeting with his defense chiefs in Paris on Saturday.
In a sign of how hard the battle ahead may be, the extremists shot down a French helicopter, the defense minister confirmed. The pilot died. The Islamists are using weapons stolen from former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s arsenal and weapons abandoned by Mali’s military when it fled in the face of the rebel advance.
The Islamists vowed to retaliate against French interests, and they claim to have sleeper cells in all of the capitals of the West African nations that are sending troops. Hollande said he had raised France’s domestic terrorism-threat level.
The sudden military operation is a reversal of months of debate over whether Western powers should get involved in a military bid to oust the militants, who took advantage of a coup in Mali’s capital in March to capture the north.
As recently as December, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned against a quick military operation. Diplomats said September would be the earliest the operation could take place.
All of that went out the window last week when the fighters pushed south. By Thursday, they were nearly face-to-face with the ill-equipped and ill-trained Malian military, a situation that couldn’t be ignored by the international community.
In a statement released Saturday, the bloc representing nations in West Africa, ECOWAS, said it had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. ECOWAS Commission President Kadré Désiré Ouedraogo said member nations made the decision “in light of the urgency of the situation.”
In Washington, D.C., a U.S. official confirmed the U.S. has offered to send drones to Mali. A French official close to the presidency said Hollande also spoke with the British prime minister, who offered troop-transport aircraft. Neither official could be named.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.