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.
Residents reported airstrikes Sunday against Islamist positions at Gao, one of the north’s main cities. A militia spokesman contacted by telephone said fighter-bombers also attacked targets at Lere near the Mauritanian border and at Douentza, news agencies reported.
The French operation is scheduled to last in this form at least until an African force can be organized and Malian army units can be trained to send a joint force to restore government authority in all of northern Mali. That could take months, specialists predicted, raising the prospect that the French involvement could be long and risky.
This is particularly true because the Malian army has been largely leaderless since a bungled coup d’etat in March, led by Capt. Amadou Haya Sango. Moreover, the Malian leader who appealed to Hollande for help, Dioncounda Traore, is a provisional president with limited authority; he was installed after the coup in what was supposed to be a political reorganization on the way to new elections that were never held.
The main Islamist organizations in northern Mali are several branches of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algerian-based group that long has thrived in the region on hostage-taking and cigarette trafficking; Ansar al-Dine, a Tuareg militia closely allied with AQIM, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an AQIM breakaway group.
The Azawad National Liberation Movement, another armed Tuareg group, drove Malian army forces out of the northern stretches of the country last April, exploiting the military coup that left the army command in disarray and the country without civilian leadership. Since then, however, the Tuareg secular movement has been pushed aside by AQIM and Ansar leaders who have imposed strict Muslim law and turned the area into a terrorist sanctuary.
Tuaregs, who differ ethnically from black people who populate the southern part of the country, have long sought — sometimes with arms — to separate or at least gain autonomy from the black-run government. Against that background, the plans for a black African intervention force to restore Bamako’s authority seemed to raise the danger of long-term strife even if the AQIM and other terrorist leaders are forced to retreat into more remote areas.
A senior French security official recently acknowledged that the success of a foreign intervention in some measure depends on efforts by France and others to provide enough aid to the Azawad National Liberation Movement to persuade it to combat the Islamist militias alongside the Malian army and its African backers. So far, he said, that has not been achieved.