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French forces take action against Mali Islamists

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 8:06 p.m.

BAMAKO, Mali — France launched airstrikes on Friday to help the government of Mali defeat al-Qaida-linked militants who captured more ground this week, dramatically raising the stakes in the battle for this vast desert nation.

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.

In Washington, a federal official told Reuters that the Pentagon was weighing options in Mali, including intelligence-sharing with France and logistics support.

On Thursday, the Islamists moved the closest they've been to territory under government control and fought the Malian military for the first time in months, seizing the strategic city of Konna.

Sanda Abou Moahmed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine group, condemned Mali's president for seeking help from its former colonizer.

“While Dioncounda Traore asked for help from France, we ask for guidance from Allah and from other Muslims in our sub-region because this war has become a war against the crusaders,” Moahmed said by telephone from Timbuktu.

For the past nine months, the Islamic militants have controlled a large swath of northern Mali, a lawless desert region where kidnapping has flourished. The rebels imposed strict Shariah, or Islamic law, in the north, causing panic among residents.

“French armed forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements,” Hollande said in Paris.

He did not give any details of the operation, other than to say that it was aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali.

Late in the day, Reuters reported that Malian government troops were able to drive back the Islamist rebels from Konna, thanks to the French intervention.

“The Malian army has retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now,” Lt. Col. Diaran Kone told Reuters.

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