BAMAKO, Mali // The first days of the battle against Islamic extremists holding Mali's north have left at least 11 civilians dead, including three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned trying to avoid falling bombs, a presidential spokesman said yesterday as troops from Mali's neighbours are expected to join hundreds of French soldiers in the fight.
Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria agreed on Saturday to send soldiers, a day after France authorised air strikes, dispatching fighter jets from neighbouring Chad and bombing rebel positions north of Mopti, the last Malian-controlled town.
State television announced that the African troops, including as many as 500 each from Burkina Faso and Niger, were expected to begin arriving yesterday. Britain has offered the use of its transport planes to help bring in the soldiers, according to a statement from prime minister David Cameron's office in London.
The African soldiers will work alongside French special forces, including a contingent that arrived in Bamako on Saturday to secure the capital against retaliatory attacks by the Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups occupying Mali's northern half. National television broadcast footage of the French troops walking single file out of Bamako airport on Saturday, weapons strapped to their bodies or held over their shoulders.
Hundreds of Malians yesterday also left the town of Lere for neighbouring Mauritania, about 70 kilometres away, to escape the violence.
The military operation began on Friday, after the fall of the town of Konna to Al Qaeda-linked groups the day before. Konna is only 50 kilometres north of the government's line of control, which begins at the town of Mopti, home to the largest concentration of Malian troops in the country.
The rebels' decision to push south, and the swift fall of Konna, changed everything. After an appeal for help from Mali's president, the French president, Francois Hollande, sent in the Mirage jets and combat helicopters, pounding rebel convoys and destroying a militant base. Footage of the jets provided to French television stations showed the triangle-shaped aircraft screaming across the sky over northern Mali. The French newspaper Le Monde reported that the jets dropped at least two, 250-kilogramme bombs over militant targets.
Sorry Diakite, the mayor of Konna, said many killed in the town, including the children who drowned, died trying to avoid the bombardment.
"Others were killed inside their courtyards, or outside their homes. People were trying to flee to find refuge. Some drowned in the river. At least three children threw themselves in the river. They were trying to swim to the other side. And there has been significant infrastructure damage," the mayor said.
The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian said that France now has more than 400 troops in Bamako, mainly to ensure the safety of French citizens and also to send a signal to the extremists.
In addition to the civilians, a French pilot was killed after the Islamists downed his combat helicopter, in a sign of how dangerous the terrain has become even for trained, special forces.