After four days of air strikes by French warplanes in central Mali, the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab Islamist group launched a counter-offensive of its own Monday, vowing to drag France into a long and bloody ground war.
France, determined to tamp down Islamists’ control over the region, intensified its air raids on Sunday while simultaneously launching hundreds of ground troops into the Mali capital of Bamako. French leaders fear northern Mali has become a breeding ground for al Qaeda and believes the region will serve as a launchpad for new attacks on the West.
MUJWA, one of the Islamist groups heading the rebellion, pledged that French citizens would suffer for Sunday’s air strikes in Gao where dozens of Islamist fighters were killed.
“They should attack on the ground if they are men. We’ll welcome them with open arms,” Oumar Ould Hamaha told Europe 1 radio. “France has opened the gates of hell for all the French. She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.”
Reuters reports that Islamists launched their counter-attack far to the southwest of recent fighting and that rebels have overrunning the insecure border region with Mauritania where al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM is based.
“They have taken Diabaly … after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army,” French Defence
Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television. He added that French and Malian forces are actively fighting to purge the region of its insurgents. Nonetheless, residents report that Islamists insurgents shouting “Allahu akbar” are not slowing down.
For its part, France did mange to stop Shabaab and its Islamist-affiliates from seizing the capital city and has pledged to continue its air strikes, Reuters reports.
President Francois Hollande announced that his country’s goal is to support a mission by the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS as mandated by a U.N. Security Council resolution in December.
Aides to Hollande, however, confessed that the Islamists are far better equipped, armed and trained than they had anticipated.
“What has struck us markedly is how modern their equipment is and their ability to use it,” an official said in response to the insurgents’ attack on a French Gazelle helicopter that led to the death of its pilot, Lieutenant Damien Boiteux.
“Initially, they appeared like a rag-tag bunch travelling in their Toyotas with a few weapons,” the official added. “But they’ve shown themselves to be well-equipped, well-armed and well-trained.”
The Reuters footage below features French military jets continuing their attacks on Islamist strongholds in northern Mali, reportedly dropping 550lb of explosives on targets since Friday.
France is “surprised” at Mali’s strength: