French fighter jets pounded Islamist rebel strongholds deep in northern Mali on Sunday as Paris poured more troops into the capital of Bamako, awaiting a West African force to dislodge al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
The attacks on Islamist positions near the ancient desert trading town of Timbuktu and Gao, the largest city in the north, marked a decisive intensification on the third day of the French mission, striking at the heart of the vast area seized by rebels in April.
France is determined to end Islamist domination of northern Mali, which many fear could act as a base for attacks on the West.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France's sudden intervention on Friday had prevented the advancing rebels from seizing Bamako. He vowed that airstrikes would continue.
“The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe,” he said.
Residents and rebel leaders reported air raids early Sunday in the towns of Lere and Douentza in central Mali, forcing Islamists to withdraw.
In Gao, a dusty town on the banks of the Niger river where Islamists have imposed an extreme form of sharia law, residents said French jets pounded the airport and rebel positions. A huge cloud of black smoke rose from the militants' camp in the city's north, and pick-up trucks ferried dead and wounded to hospital.
“The planes are so fast you can only hear their sound in the sky,” resident Soumaila Maiga said by telephone. “We are happy, even though it is frightening. Soon we will be delivered.”
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