* French aircraft bomb Islamist fighters in Mali
* African states speed up plans to deploy troops
* French pilot killed when his helicopter is hit
* Islamist group says French hostages and citizens at risk
By Bate Felix and John Irish
BAMAKO/PARIS, Jan 12 French aircraft pounded
Islamist rebels in Mali for a second day on Saturday and
neighbouring West African states sped up their plans to deploy
troops in an international campaign to prevent groups linked to
al Qaeda expanding their power base.
France, warning that the control of northern Mali by the
militants posed a security threat to Europe, intervened
dramatically on Friday as heavily armed Islamist fighters swept
southwards towards Mali's capital Bamako.
Under cover from French fighter planes and attack
helicopters, Malian troops routed 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
Bamako said more than 100 rebel fighters had been killed.
A French pilot died on Friday when rebels shot down his
helicopter near the town of Mopti. Hours after opening one front
against al Qaeda-linked Islamists, France mounted a commando
raid to try to rescue a French hostage held by al Shabaab
militants in Somalia, also allied to al Qaeda, but failed to
prevent the hostage being killed.
French President Francois Hollande made clear that France's
aim in Mali was to support the West African troop deployment,
which is also endorsed by the United Nations, the European Union
and the United States.
Western countries in particular fear that Islamists could
use Mali as a base for attacks on the West and expand the
influence of al Qaeda-linked militants based in Yemen, Somalia
and North Africa.
"We've already held back the progress of our adversaries and
inflicted heavy losses on them," Hollande said. "Our mission is
not over yet."
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 for fear of reprisals.
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 around 60 others injured.
Human Rights Watch said around 10 civilians had died in the
violence, including three children who drowned trying to cross a
river to safety. It said other children recruited to fight for
the Islamists had been injured.
With Paris urging West African nations to send in their
troops quickly, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara,
chairman of the regional bloc ECOWAS, kick-started a
U.N.-mandated operation to deploy some 3,300 African soldiers.
TROOPS BY MONDAY
The mission had not been expected to start until September.
"By Monday at the latest, the troops will be there or will
have started to arrive," said Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's
African Integration Minister. "Things are accelerating ... The
reconquest of the north has already begun."
The multinational force is expected to be led by Nigerian
Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir and draw heavily on troops from
West Africa's most populous state. Burkina Faso, Niger and
Senegal each announced they would send 500 soldiers.
French army chief Edouard Guillaud said France had no plan
to chase the Islamists into the north with land troops, and was
waiting for ECOWAS forces. France has deployed some special
forces units to the central town of Mopti and sent hundreds of
soldiers to Bamako in "Operation Serval" - named after an
Concerned about reprisals on French soil, Hollande announced
he had instructed Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to tighten
security in public buildings and on public transport in France.
Hollande's intervention in Mali could endanger eight French
nationals being held by Islamists in the Sahara. A spokesman for
one of Mali's rebel groups, Ansar Dine, said there would be
"There are consequences, not only for French hostages, but
also for all French citizens, wherever they find themselves in
the Muslim world," Sanda Ould Boumama told Reuters. "The
hostages are facing death."
The French Defence Ministry said its failed bid on Friday
night to rescue a French intelligence officer held hostage in
Somalia since 2009 was unrelated to events in Mali.
The ministry said it believed the officer had been killed by
his captors along with at least one French commando. But the
Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen insurgent group that was
holding Denis Allex said he was alive and being held at a
location far from the raid.
The French Foreign Ministry stepped up its security alert on
Mali and parts of neighbouring Mauritania and Niger on Friday,
extending its red alert - the highest level - to include Bamako.
France advised its 6,000 citizens in Mali to leave.
Thousands more French live across West Africa, particularly in
Senegal and Ivory Coast.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on
Friday urged an "accelerated international engagement" and said
the bloc would speed up plans to deploy 200 troops to train
A U.S. official said the Pentagon was weighing options such
as intelligence-sharing with France and logistics support.
French officials suggest U.S. surveillance capacity, including
unmanned drones, would prove valuable in vast northern Mali.
In Britain, a spokesman said Prime Minister David Cameron
had spoken to Hollande to express support for France's
intervention and to offer two C-17 transport planes to assist
He said both men discussed "the need to work with the Malian
government, regional neighbours and international partners to
prevent a new terrorist haven developing on Europe's doorstep
and to reinvigorate the U.N.-led political process once the
rebel advance has been halted".
Military analysts voiced doubt, however, about whether
Friday's action was the start of a swift operation to retake
northern Mali - a harsh, sparsely populated terrain the size of
France - as neither equipment nor ground troops were ready.
"We're not yet at the big intervention," said Mark
Schroeder, of the risk and security consultancy Stratfor.
More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali
a reputation as a bulwark of democracy - but that image
unravelled in a matter of weeks after a military coup last March
that paved the way for the Islamist rebellion.
Interim President Dioncounda Traore, under pressure for
bolder action from Mali's military, declared a state of
emergency on Friday. Traore cancelled a long-planned official
trip to Paris on Wednesday because of the violence.
"Every Malian must henceforth consider themselves a
soldier," he said on state TV.
On the streets of Bamako, some cars were driving around with
French flags draped from the windows to celebrate Paris's
"It's thanks to France that Mali will emerge from this
crisis," said student Mohamed Camera. "This war must end now."