Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali’s defense minister, said on Saturday that he was at the Bamako airport to receive a contingent of French special forces from one of their tactical units. Residents in the town of Sevare, near the line of control, said they had seen planes of white people arriving, whom they assume were French soldiers.
Hundreds of French troops were involved in the operation, code-named ‘‘Serval’’ after a sub-Saharan wildcat, officials in Paris said.
‘‘The situation in Mali is serious,’’ Le Drian said in Paris. ‘‘It has rapidly worsened in the last few days ... We had to react before it was too late,’’ he added.
French intelligence services had detected preparations for what they described as a ‘‘major offensive’’ organized and coordinated by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, and their allies against the towns of Mopti and Diabaly. After a large number of vehicles were spotted heading toward the strategic town on Thursday, France sent in its first unit to Sevare, a town adjacent to Mopti, to support the Malian combat forces, Le Drian said.
Then on Friday, Hollande authorized the use of French air power following an appeal from Mali’s president. French pilots targeted a column of jihadist fighters travelling in pickup trucks, who were heading down toward Mopti from Konna. He said that the helicopter raid led to the destruction of several units of fighters and stopped their advance toward the city.
Overnight Saturday, air strikes began in the areas where the fighters operate, Le Drian said, led by French forces in Chad, where France has Mirage 2000 and Mirage F1 fighter jets stationed. Residents in the town of Lere, near the Mauritanian border, confirmed that it had been bombed.
Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for nearly a decade, operating out of Mali’s lawless northern desert. They did not come out into the open until this April, when a coup by disgruntled soldiers in Bamako caused the country to tip into chaos. The extremists took advantage of the power vacuum, pushing into the main towns in the north, and seizing more than half of Mali’s territory, an area larger than Afghanistan.
Turbaned fighters now control all the major northern cities, carrying out beatings, floggings and amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten and Lori Hinnant in Paris, Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.