French airstrikes overnight in Mali drove back Islamist rebels from a key city and destroyed a militant command center, the French defense minister said Saturday, as West African nations authorized the immediate deployment of troops to the country.
The al-Qaida-linked militants, who have carved out their own territory in the lawless desert region of northern Mali over the past nine months, recently pressed closer to a major base of the Malian army, dramatically raising the stakes in the battle for the vast West African nation.
The French operation, which started Friday in the former French colony, came after an appeal for help from Mali's president. The fighting involved hundreds of French troops and overnight airstrikes on three rebel targets, said Le Drian. He said a rebel command center outside the key city of Konna was destroyed.
Adm. Edouard Guillaud said a French helicopter had been downed and that the pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated to safety.
A military official in Mali said Islamist militants were driven out of Konna, but that the city captured by the extremists earlier this week was not yet under government control.
"We are doing sweeps of the city to find any hidden Islamist extremist elements," said Lt. Col. Diarran Kone. "The full recovery of the city is too early to determine as we do not yet control the city, and we remain vigilant."
Sanda Abou Mohamed, spokesman for Islamist group Ansar Dine, told The Associated Press he could not confirm if his fighters were still in Konna. "I cannot tell you if our fighters are still in the city of Konna or if they are not, because since yesterday afternoon I have not had contact with them as the telephone network has been down in this zone," Mohamed said Saturday.
In a statement released Saturday, ECOWAS commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said the bloc had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. He said they made the decision "in light of the urgency of the situation."
ECOWAS did not say how many troops would be sent to Mali or when they would arrive. It also did not specify which countries from the 15-nation bloc would be providing the forces.
ECOWAS has been talking for months about a military operation to oust the Islamists from northern Mali. While the U.N. approved a plan for deployment, it had not been expected until September.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam.
In recent months, however, the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.
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.
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.