Francois Hollande, the president of France, has said his country will step up home security as it presses ahead with air strikes in the West African state of Mali to force al-Qaeda-linked groups out of areas they occupy in the north.
The military campaign has so far claimed one French pilot but Hollande said on Saturday the armed groups’ progress had been held back and that “heavy losses” had been inflicted on them.
Hollande spoke about the fighting after West African nations had authorised the deployment of more troops to Mali.
A meeting is due take place on Sunday at Élysée Palace, the seat of the presidency, to discuss the latest developments in Mali and Somalia, where a failed attempt by a French commando unit to free a French hostage ended in the death of a Frenchman.
More than 100 people, including rebels and government soldiers, have been killed in the fighting.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defence minister, said a French helicopter was downed on Friday and that the pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated to safety.
The al-Qaeda-linked fighters, who have carved out their own territory in the lawless desert region of northern Mali over the past nine months, recently pressed closer to a major base of the Malian army.
“The threat is a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe,” said Le Drian.
The fighting has involved hundreds of French troops and air strikes on three rebel targets, said Le Drian, adding that a rebel command centre outside Konna, a town the rebels had captured, was destroyed.
The French operation in its former colony came after an appeal for help from Mali’s president.
“It was only two months ago that Francois Hollande said there would be no combat troops on the ground,” said Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Paris.
“By yesterday evening, he said not only were French troops being sent to Mali, but that they were already there. Things are moving incredibly fast.”
A military official in Mali said the fighters had been driven out of Konna, but that the city, which was captured by the rebels earlier this week, was not yet under government control.
During a news conference on Saturday evening, Hollande said: “I remind you that France in this operation is not pursuing any special interest other than securing a friendly nation – and has no other objective.”
Hollande on Friday had said the “terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists” in northern Mali “show a brutality that threatens us all”. He vowed that the operation would last “as long as necessary”.
|Ansar Dine spokesman and analyst comment on Mali|
The operation is aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali, seven of whom are being held captive, said Hollande.
Sanda Abou Mohamed, spokesman for Ansar Dine, one of the groups fighting the Malian government, told Al Jazeera: “The terrorist French military bombed Konna. The hospitals are now filled with the injured – women, children and the elderly are the main victims.”
“It’s impossible to know how many have been killed, but the number is huge,” he said. “Only five of those killed were our fighters. The rest are all innocent civilians.”
Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, commission president of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), said on Saturday that the bloc had authorised the immediate deployment of troops to Mali.
He said ECOWAS made the decision “in light of the urgency of the situation”.
ECOWAS did not say how many troops would be sent to Mali or when they would arrive. It also did not specify which countries from the 15-nation bloc would be providing the forces.