France bombs Mali, as more troops arrive in Bamako

BAMAKO/PARIS (REUTERS) - French fighter jets bombed Islamist rebels in Mali for a third day on Sunday as Paris poured more troops into the capital Bamako, awaiting the arrival of a West African force to dislodge Al Qaeda-linked insurgents from the country's north.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France's dramatic intervention on Friday to bomb a convoy of heavily armed Islamist fighters sweeping southwards had stopped them from seizing Mali's capital Bamako within days.

Western countries fear Islamists could use Mali as a base for attacks on the West, forming a link with Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

Le Drian said former colonial power France was carrying out continuous bombing raids against the alliance of rebel groups, which seized the country's vast desert north in April.

"There are raids going on now: there were some last night, and there will be more tomorrow," Le Drian told French television.

"The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe."

Residents said French aircraft bombed the northern town of Gao, and a Malian rebel spokesman said they bombed targets in the towns of Lere and Douentza.

Le Drian said France was deploying a further contingent of 80 soldiers to Mali on Sunday, bring the total to 550 soldiers, split between Bamako and the town of Mopti, some 500 km north. State-of-the-art Rafale fighter jets would be dispatched to reinforce the operation on Sunday, he said.

A media cameraman reported seeing on Sunday more than 100 French troops disembarking from a military cargo plane at Bamako airport, just on the outskirts of the capital.

Bamako itself was calm on Sunday, with the sun streaking through the dust enveloping the city as the seasonal Harmattan wind blew from the Sahara. Some cars drove around with French flags draped from the windows to celebrate Paris's intervention.

Hours after opening one front against al Qaeda-linked Islamists, France mounted a commando raid to free a French hostage in Somalia held by al Shabaab militants allied to Al Qaeda, but failed to stop him being killed along with a French commando.

A French pilot was killed on Friday when rebels in Mali shot down his helicopter.

President Francois Hollande has made it clear that France's aim in Mali is to support the deployment of a West African mission to retake the north, endorsed by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States.

The 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS convened a summit for Saturday in Ivory Coast to discuss the military campaign.

With Paris pressing West African nations to deploy troops quickly, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who holds the rotating ECOWAS chairmanship, has kick-started the operation to deploy some 3,300 African soldiers.

Ouattara was himself installed in power with French military backing in 2011 after a brief civil war triggered by former president Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to step aside after losing a late 2010 election.

"The troops will start arriving in Bamako today and tomorrow," Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's African Integration Minister, said. "They will be convoyed to the front at Sevare."

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