French combat helicopters and fighter jets conducted airstrikes in central Mali on Friday and Saturday, helping the local army block the southern progression of rebel groups which are ruling the northern half of the African country, French and Malian government officials said.
France, which engaged its troops in Mali after an urgent call for help by the Malian president, said its main, immediate goal was to regain control of the key town of Konna, which fell into rebel hands on Thursday.
“The risk is the creation of a terrorist state at the doorstep of Europe and France,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Saturday. The minister said France also aimed to protect its 6,000 nationals who live in Mali, mainly in the capital, Bamako, as well as other foreign citizens.
Konna was retaken but not yet under full control of the Malian army, Mr. Le Drian and a Malian official said.
A French helicopter pilot was wounded during Friday’s fights in the Konna area, and later died in hospital, the French minister said.
U.S. officials said Washington shared France’s goal of preventing al Qaeda’s Saharan affiliate and other violent Islamist groups from expanding their influence in Mali, and that the Pentagon was reviewing a French request for technical assistance to conduct the Malian campaign. Mr. Le Drian declined to comment on France’s request to the U.S.
In what the French minister described as “a coincidence,” France conducted a helicopter raid in Somali in the night of Friday to Saturday in an attempt to free a French hostage held in the east African country. Mr. Le Drian said he believed French army consultant Denis Allex, the hostage, was killed by Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab.
But al-Shabaab, which kidnapped Mr. Allex in 2009, said the Frenchman was alive and still in its custody. In a statement, the group said it had also captured a French soldier. The French minister said one members of the commando was killed during the raid and that another one was reported missing.
The interventions in Mali and Somalia increase the risk that jihadist groups will seek to retaliate against France, French officials said. In response, French President François Hollande said on Saturday the government would reinforce the anti-terror alert system, which currently stands at close to its maximum level.
France’s decision to send soldiers to Mali marks a shift in strategy. Paris had earlier said it stood ready to help coordinate a multilateral intervention in the country—which wasn’t expected to begin until September—but that it wouldn’t deploy troops there.
Although alone in supporting Mali’s military counteroffensive, France immediately turned to the United Nations Security Council, asking that efforts to set up an African-led force be accelerated.
“Our mission consists in preparing the deployment of an African force that will allow Mali to recover its territorial integrity,” Mr. Hollande said in a short televised address on Saturday.
Nigeria was the first country to rally the French effort, although not on the front line. On Saturday, several hundred Nigerian soldiers arrived at the airport in Bamako, the Malian capital, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Diarran Kone, and a senior Nigerian security adviser. Those troops will perform a peacekeeping, noncombat role, the adviser said.
Observers say that maintaining calm in Bamako will be an important mission to help Mali’s fragile interim government keep rebellious Malian army commanders in check.
Western countries have watched anxiously in recent months as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, as the group is known, seized a vast stretch of Mali’s north following the collapse of the country’s democratically elected government in an army-led coup in March 2012.
For about a decade, experts say, AQIM has trained terrorists, facilitated drug trafficking, and kidnapped foreigners for ransom in the vast Sahara region. In recent months, it and other Islamist groups have begun violently imposing Islamic rule in Mali’s north, prompting hundreds of thousands of residents to flee south. These groups currently hold eight French hostages in the region.
Until Friday, international plans to assist Mali in coping with the rebel onslaught had moved slowly. The U.N. Security Council passed three resolutions last year to prepare the ground for an African-led military intervention. Within the framework of those resolutions, France and other European Union countries had been in the process of sending military instructors to the region to help set up a special African force and reorganize Mali’s small army. The U.S. had said it might provide some technical and financial support.
But Mr. Hollande said that after rebel groups renewed their push toward the south of Mali this week, a prompt reaction was necessary.