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French warjets push back Malian rebels

Islamists retreat as West African force vows to act

French soldiers put missiles onto a fighter aircraft at a base in Chad on Saturday to prepare for an offensive against Islamist rebels who have seized control of northern Mali.

NICOLAS-NELSON RICHARD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

French soldiers put missiles onto a fighter aircraft at a base in Chad on Saturday to prepare for an offensive against Islamist rebels who have seized control of northern Mali.

PARIS — French airstrikes in Mali pushed back Islamist rebels from a key village and destroyed a rebel command center, France said Saturday, as West African nations authorized what they said would be a fast deployment of troops to Mali in support of the weak government there.

France launched its campaign Friday, dropping bombs and firing rockets from helicopter gunships and jet fighters after the Islamist rebels who control the north of Mali pressed southward, overrunning the village of Konna.

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The French, who had earlier said they would not intervene militarily but only help African troops, took action in response to an appeal by the Malian president.

France, the United States, and other Western nations have been increasingly anxious about the Islamists’ tightening grip on the north of the country, which they said was becoming a haven for militants, including those with links to Al Qaeda, who threaten not only their neighbors, but the West.

On Saturday, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, chief of staff of the French armed forces, said French forces had no plans to extend operations to northern areas controlled by the Islamists, but would expect to help African forces do the job when they arrive.

‘’The quicker the African mission is on the ground, the less we will need to help the Malian army,’’ Guillaud said. He said more military planes had been sent to Africa for possible use in Mali.

In a separate development Saturday, a French hostage rescue mission in southern Somalia failed, with the death of the hostage. At least 14 Islamists also were killed, the Associated Press reported.

‘The quicker the African mission is on the ground, the less we will need to help the Malian army.’

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French President François Hollande, in a brief, somber televised statement Saturday evening, said that two French soldiers had died in the mission and that the hostage, a French intelligence officer, was “assassinated” by his Islamist captors despite militants’ claims that he was still alive.

French officials had earlier been cautious about the fate of the hostage, an agent using the name Denis Allex, and had said that one soldier had died and another was missing.

French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that the rescue mission was unconnected to French military action in Mali, but Islamist groups holding up to eight French hostages in northern Africa have regularly threatened to kill them if the French intervened militarily on the continent.

The hostage in Somalia was abducted July 14, 2009 — Bastille Day — from a hotel in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. The French have said he was working as a security consultant to the transitional government.

Le Drian said France needed to act in Mali to forestall the collapse of the government there and the creation of another haven for radical Islamists with ties to terrorist groups. ‘‘The threat is the establishment of a terrorist state within range of Europe and of France,’’ he said.

Islamist militants have set up harsh rule under Shariah law in northern Mali in the nine months since the army fled the area. France has some 6,000 citizens in the country, a former French colony.

In beginning its intervention in Mali on Friday, France scrambled Mirage fighter jets from a base in neighboring Chad, as well as combat helicopters.

It also has sent hundreds of troops to help Malian forces on the front line, as well as to secure the capital, Bamako.

Before the French military’s move to enter Mali, the UN Security Council had agreed that European Union advisers and troops from the Economic Community of West African States would help Mali’s government win back the north. But both groups had been slow to deploy.

With the fall of Konna and the movement of the Islamist fighters south, ECOWAS said Saturday that it had authorized deployment of troops ‘‘in light of the urgency of the situation,’’ news reports said.

The ECOWAS commission president, Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, announced the new plan but he did not specify how many troops would be sent to Mali or give a deployment date. Also Saturday, the foreign minister of Mali’s neighbor, Niger, said that the country would send a battalion of 500 soldiers to fight alongside ECOWAS troops.

In the fighting Friday, one French helicopter pilot, Lieutenant Damien Boiteux, died from small-arms fire, Le Drian said. Le Drian said French forces, led by helicopter gunships, had driven the Islamists from Konna, but it remained unclear whether Malian forces had established control.

Konna is about 45 miles north of the major town of Mopti, a port city on the Niger River that the Mali government feels it cannot lose. It is a major base for the Malian military, and officials believe that if Mopti were to fall, the Islamists could potentially seize the rest of the country.

Sanda Ould Boumama, an Islamist group spokesman, said French intervention in Mali will have ‘‘consequences, not only for French hostages, but also for all French citizens wherever they find themselves in the Muslim world.’’

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