France backs Mali offensive against Islamists

BAMAKO (AFP) - Backed by French airpower, Mali has unleashed a counter-attack against Islamist fighters, recapturing a town lost to the rebels as they advanced south from their northern strongholds.

US officials meanwhile suggested they might support the French action there with surveillance drones and aerial refuelling tankers.

Malian troops recaptured the central town of Konna on Friday, Lieutenant Colonel Diarra Kone at the defence ministry told AFP, a day after it fell to the Islamists.

In a speech to the nation on Friday evening, Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore vowed to crush the country's enemies.

"Our choice is peace ... but they have forced war on us. We will carry out a crushing and massive retaliation against our enemies," Mr Traore said.

The government declared a nationwide state of emergency, banning protests, meetings and public gatherings.

In Paris, French President Francois Hollande confirmed that French forces were supporting the Malian offensive aimed at repelling the Al-Qaeda-linked radicals who control northern Mali.

While he gave no indication of the scale of French involvement, he said it would last for as long as necessary.

In a letter to the United Nations, France called on the body to speed up the deployment of an African-led force to Mali. The UN Security Council has already approved the 3,000-strong force, but it is not expected to be ready to deploy before September.

The Islamists triggered international alarm this week with their capture of Konna and their threat to move further south.

Around 1,200 of their fighters had moved to within 20 km of Mopti, a strategically important town on the frontier between rebel-held and government-held territories.

On Friday, however, Captain Oumar Daw, a Malian officer based in Mopti, said their counter-attack had pushed back the Islamists.

"The Islamist advance has been stopped by the Malian army with the support of foreign troops. We are pursuing the offensive," he said.

Mali's army is considered too weak to tackle the Islamist groups who seized the north last year, taking advantage of the power vacuum created by a coup in Bamako.

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told AFP: "We have noted that the government of Mali has asked for support, and we share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven in the region."

One US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP that US commanders were looking at a range of options to help France, including supplying aerial refuelling tankers and surveillance drones.

The American military has a network of air bases in Italy, Spain and elsewhere in the region that could provide refueling tankers and other assistance.