French airstrikes have driven back Islamist militants who captured a key town in northern Mali, and a West African regional bloc has authorized the immediate deployment of more troops into the country. Officials said Saturday that French forces had pushed rebels from Konna. The takeover of the town a few days ago had placed militants within 25 kilometers of Mopti, the northern-most city under Malian government control.??
A reporter in Mali said that dozens of Islamist fighters were killed in the operation.? The reporter also says the Malian army is now occupying the town and Islamists fighters have retreated to the towns of Bore' and Douentza. Meanwhile, France's defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday a helicopter pilot was killed during the airstrikes, which began Friday. ??The al-Qaida-linked Ansar Dine militant group has responded to the strikes by threatening France with reprisals.
French President Francois Hollande reacted by ordering tightened security in France, including surveillance at public buildings and transportation sites. Earlier, authorities in Paris advised all French citizens in Mali to leave the country "temporarily." In another development Saturday, the ECOWAS regional bloc authorized the immediate deployment of African troops to Mali. Burkina Faso and Niger each announced plans to contribute 500 troops to the mission. In December, the United Nations Security Council approved a plan for West African states to deploy at least 3,000 troops to Mali to help train the army and retake the north. None of those, however, had been expected in Mali until September.
Al-Qaida-linked groups took control of Mali's north soon after renegade soldiers overthrew the country's elected president last March. The groups have imposed a harsh form of Islamic law on the areas in their control, drawing condemnation from human rights groups.
Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, declared a national state of emergency Friday and called on every Malian to help in the war effort. "Every Malian, man and woman, should from here on out consider oneself to be a soldier of the nation and behave as such," the president said. "We call on all mining, telephone and other companies, as well as all people morally and physically able, to contribute to this fight against terrorism. All public services should put all vehicles that could be useful in the field at the service of the army without delay."
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said French forces in Mali are preparing for any rebel move aimed at the capital, Bamako, and that they will remain in the area as long as necessary. Ayrault said the militants are to blame for much lawlessness, including kidnappings. France announced Friday that it had deployed troops to Mali at the request of the government. Troops from Nigeria and Senegal are also reported to be in Mali, helping government forces. Mali's president had asked France, the country's former colonial ruler, for immediate action to stop the advancing rebels. Diplomatic sources say Mr. Traore will meet with President Hollande in Paris on Wednesday.