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France pushes back Mali rebels with airstrikes

The French intervention in former French colony Mali continued Friday. Airstrikes drove Al Qaeda-linked militants out of Konna, a city that had been captured by the rebels. France entered the conflict at the request of Mali's president.

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Turbaned fighters control major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did. And as in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.

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French President Francois Hollande said the "terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists" in northern Mali "show a brutality that threatens us all." He vowed that the operation would last "as long as necessary."

France said it was taking the action in Mali at the request of President Dioncounda Traore, who declared a state of emergency because of the militants' advance.

Hollande has said the operation is aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali, where seven of them already are being held captive.

Separately, French commandoes attacked an Islamist base in Somalia in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a French intelligence agent held hostage. The agent and a French soldier were killed, and a French soldier was missing, Le Drian said. But the man's Islamist kidnappers said the hostage was alive and that a French soldier had been captured as well.

The raid early Saturday in Somalia could have been aimed at preventing al-Shabab fighters from harming the kidnapped French security official in reprisal for the French military intervention in Mali. Le Drian said 17 Islamist fighters were killed in the failed raid.

An al-Shabab official confirmed the fighting and said the group held one dead French soldier. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

France has led a diplomatic push for international action in northern Mali, but efforts to get an African-led force together, or to train the weak Malian army, have dragged on.

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the capture of Konna and urged U.N. member states to assist Mali "in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups."

Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the U.N.

The Security Council authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions. Those include the training of Mali's military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since a military coup last year sent the nation into disarray.

The fighting Wednesday and Thursday for Konna represents the first clashes between Malian government forces and the Islamists in nearly a year, since the militants seized the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Konna is just 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.

Keaten reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris, Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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