Le Drian, in a radio and television appearance, said that several planeloads of additional arrivals brought to 400 the number of French soldiers in Bamako to provide rear-area support and protect French citizens. Another 150, he added, have been deployed 300 miles to the north around Mopti, the main town near the line between government-controlled territory and the northern two-thirds of the country that has been ruled by Islamist militias for the past seven months.
Fears that a southward offensive by several Islamist militias was about to overrun Mopti led President Francois Hollande to order the unilateral French military intervention beginning Friday. Le Drian said the Islamist offensive, which was halted by French helicopter gunship raids and Mirage bombing runs, could have punched all the way to Bamako if Hollande had not acted swiftly, implying that Malian army defenses had collapsed.
The minister said more French troops and airplanes are on the way, including advanced Rafale fighter-bombers from bases in France. He did not say where they would be based in Africa. Mirage aircraft currently involved in the operation have been flying from nearby French bases, including one in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, but some helicopters and other aircraft have been flying from a Malian air base at Sevare.
“There are raids all the time,” Le Drian said.
Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based watchdog organization, said it had documented the killing of 10 civilians, including three children, in the French bombing Friday and Saturday around the disputed town of Konna, just north of Mopti.
In addition to the French deployment, several African countries have promised to dispatch soldiers immediately to form a vanguard of what eventually will become a pan-African intervention force. With French training and other help, the African force will be assigned to restore government authority over the 250,000-square-mile region that has become a terrorist haven.
“We will put into place the military deployment necessary to achieve our goals,” Le Drian said. “France is at war with terrorism wherever it is to be found.”
French officials indicated Hollande’s strategy is to support the Malian army along the separation line near Mopti, providing air support and military advisers but letting Malian soldiers do the fighting. At the same time, they said, French airplanes will continue to bomb Islamist targets farther north wherever they can be detected.