BAMAKO // Islamist insurgents in Mali threatened terror attacks in France yesterday and warned that French military intervention had "opened the gates of hell".
"France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," said Abou Dardar of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
And Oumar Ould Hamaha of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa warned: "France has opened the gates of hell for all the French. She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."
In a counter-attack after a French offensive with the Malian army on Friday, the insurgents seized control of Diabaly, a small town 400 kilometres north of the capital, Bamako.
The rebels are thought to number in the hundreds, but are well equipped with heavy weapons looted from Malian army bases and smuggled from Libya, and intimately familiar with the brutal desert terrain.
But as French planes bombarded rebel bases in the north for a fourth day, Malians in the capital welcomed the French-led international intervention.
"Popular opinion totally agrees with the intervention," said Diarra Diop, editor of Le Journal du Mali online newspaper in the capital, although she expressed a note of caution while eyeing a newspaper editorial proclaiming that "Malians feel comforted".
"Some say it will take a month, it will be very quick, but I think we should be very cautious, because it's a war of infiltration," she said.
There are also growing concerns that the international military intervention could lead to attacks and unrest in Libya and the countries of the Maghreb. Algeria, with its 1,600km -border with northern Mali, is the country most affected by the conflict there and has long pushed for a negotiated solution to the problem, hosting rebel groups for peace talks in December.
Libya closed all its southern borders and declared the south of its country a closed military zone last month and the Tunisian prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, joined Libyan and Algerian counterparts for talks in the Libyan city of Ghadames on Saturday.
France's Le Monde newspaper reported that the number of French ground troops was to increase from 500 to 2,500, for a fight that they are likely to end up leading. Mali's own army, which ousted president Amadou Toumani Touaré in a coup last year, is divided and ineffective, and thought to number fewer that 8,000. West African troops, on their way from Benin, Nigeria, Burkino Faso and other countries, are thought not to be used to desert fighting.
But the internationally backed air assault has afforded at least temporary relief in the capital, as it abruptly halted a push south by the Islamist forces that had terrified people in Bamako. The city is used to a relaxed interpretation of Islam where bars, women with hitched-up skirts riding scooters to work and vibrant wedding parties with atmospheric music levels are the norm.
The news of the advance last week to Konna, a strategically positioned northern town, came when she was on a bus, said Ms Diop. "The bus went silent," she said. "We thought, they have taken Konna and they will come to Bamako, because our army is not good and will not protect us."
The lightning French intervention that began shortly afterwards came after months of international dithering after a takeover of the north last year by a patchwork of jihadi groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Tuareg nationalists. The groups stormed into the northern provinces of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, took over administrations and courts and began meting out a harsh form of Islamic justice.
Western leaders repeatedly warned that the ungoverned area posed an international security threat, but regional forces struggled to come up with a coherent military plan and Algeria withheld crucial support for military action.
"Many people felt abandoned. They had no school, no health care, nothing. The ladies were obliged to veil and there was no music, television, alcohol," said one university professor from Gao.
But after France was finally galvanised into action by the insurgents' push south, Mali's foreign minister said yesterday that the aim was now to expel militants from the north, not just stop their advance. "I think in the last four days these jihadists have suffered heavy losses with more than 100 deaths," Tieman Hubert Coulibaly said.
The professor from Gao was delighted by the intervention, and said attempts at negotiation had failed because many of the groups are not Malians, but come from neighbouring Algeria, Mauritania and further afield, and because they are zealots. "These guys are against all laws," he said. "How can you negotiate with them?"
After speaking with his family in Gao, he said that although the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, the dominant group there, had largely fled as French jets bombed their camps on the outskirts of the city, there were still many hiding in the city.
"There should be ground forces searching to clear them," he said. Ultimately, he thought, there would be fighting in the streets of his home city.
"I am sure that is will become a battlefield, but today there is no other option. Everyone is aware of this and they are afraid."
* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse