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Mali: French air raids extend as West African states prepare to send troops


PARIS/BAMAKO, (Xinhua): French fighter jets on Saturday stepped up air raids against Malian rebels in the assistance of the former French colony's government as neighboring West African nations also got prepared to send troops.

It was the second day of the air campaign staged by French air force to quash the rebels in Mali after Paris warned that the seizure of northern Mali by the armed militants posed a security threat to Europe.

Reports said the heavily armed Islamist fighters have swept southward toward Mali's capital Bamako.

The Malian government troops, under the cover from French air power, have managed to drive the militants out of the strategic central town of Konna.

More than 100 people, including those from both the rebels and government troops, were killed during the conflicts, said a Malian military source on Saturday.

The source said "more than 100 rebels" have been killed during the fighting.

Meanwhile, a witness said he had counted 148 bodies among which several dozens were government troops. The army and its allies are combing Konna to eliminate pockets resistance.

A senior official with Malian president's office said on state television that 11 Malian soldiers were killed in the battle for Konna, with around 60 others injured.

A military source said the rebels now have no possibility to circumvent Konna to attack the south.

According to other military sources, the goal is to liberate all the occupied regions before Jan. 20, the 52nd anniversary of the founding of the Malian army.

The rebels, who have occupied several major towns in northern Mali since March last year in the wake of a military coup, overtook Konna on Thursday after days of fighting with the government troops.

Though only two days into the air campaign, Paris has already begun to see casualties. A French pilot was killed on Friday when rebels shot down his helicopter near the town of Mopti.

French President Francois Hollande said France's purpose in Mali was to support the West African troop deployment, which is agreed by the UN, the European Union (EU) and the United States.

Some western African nations feared that armed groups could use Mali as a power base to plot attacks on the West and expand their influence in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

"We've already held back the progress of our adversaries and inflicted heavy losses on them...Our mission is not over yet," Hollande said.

Cote d'Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara, chairman of the regional bloc ECOWAS, decided to deploy some 3,300 African soldiers.

"By Monday at the latest, the troops will be there or will have started to arrive ... The reconquest of the north has already begun," said Cote d'Ivoire African Integration Minister Ali Coulibaly.

The multinational force is expected to be headed by Nigerian Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir. Its troops would come from countries like Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal, each of which announced they would send 500 soldiers.

French army chief Edouard Guillaud said his country has no plan to send land troops to chase the rebels into the north, and is waiting for ECOWAS forces.

The French Foreign Ministry advised its 6,000 citizens in Mali to leave, while thousands more French live across West Africa, particularly in Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said the British government would support France's intervention and is ready to offer two C-17 transport planes.

With the battle going on, Mali's Interim President Dioncounda Traore on Friday declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency and requisitioned all state owned pick-up vehicles and appealed for support for the country's army from companies based in Mali, a move indicating the government's determination to restore territorial integrity.

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