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France raises stakes in Mali

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By Reuters
Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 9:58 p.m.

French aircraft pounded Islamist rebels in Mali for a second day on Saturday as France raised its domestic terror threat level and Britain announced it was deploying aircraft to assist French military operations.

The United States was said to be weighing possible involvement with the Pentagon considering options such as intelligence sharing with France and logistical support, the London-based Guardian newspaper reported.

And West African states sped up their plans to deploy troops in an international campaign to prevent groups linked to al-Qaida from expanding their power base.

Under cover from French fighter planes and attack helicopters, Malian troops were successful in routing a rebel convoy and drove the Islamists out of the strategic central town of Konna, which they had seized on Thursday. A senior army officer in the capital city of Bamako said more than 100 rebel fighters had been killed in the French airstrikes.

The United States and Europe fear that Islamists could use Mali as a base for attacks on the West and expand the influence of al-Qaida-linked militants based in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

French President Francois Hollande said the influx of troops from his nation is to “allow Mali to recover its territorial integrity in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions.” He warned that two days of strikes by French warplanes were only the opening salvos in a longer campaign.

“We have already held back the progress of our adversaries and inflicted heavy losses on them. But our mission is not over yet,” he said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron offered to transport foreign troops and equipment, and the air force was deploying planes to Mali, even though it is feared the operation could provoke terrorist reprisals against European targets.

Hollande placed France on high alert, promising to increase protection at public buildings and transportation networks.

On the streets of Bamako, some cars were driving around with French flags draped from the windows to celebrate the intervention of France, its former colonial ruler.

A resident in the northern city of Gao, one of the Islamists' strongholds, reported scores of rebel fighters were retreating northward in pickup trucks on Saturday.

“The hospital here is overwhelmed with injured and dead,” he said, asking not to be identified.

In Konna, a shopkeeper reported seeing scores of dead Islamist fighters piled in the streets, as well as the bodies of dozens of uniformed soldiers.

A senior official with Mali's presidency announced on state television that 11 Malian soldiers had been killed in the battle for Konna, with about 60 others wounded. A French pilot died on Friday when rebels shot down his helicopter near the town of Mopti.

Human Rights Watch said about 10 civilians had died in the violence, including three children who drowned while trying to cross a river to safety. It said other children recruited to fight for the Islamists had been injured.

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