French military keeps up airstrikes in Mali

Associated Press
A French soldier waits for a French Puma transport helicopter  to land on the soccer stadium to test the field in the center of Niono, some 400 kms (300 miles) North of the capital Bamako Sunday Jan. 20, 2013. French troops encircled a key Malian town on Friday, trying to stop radical Islamists from striking against communities closer to the capital and cutting off their supply line, a French official said. The move around Diabaly came as French and Malian authorities said that the city whose capture prompted the French military intervention in the first place was no longer in the hands of the extremists.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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SEGOU, Mali (AP) — The French military used fighter planes and helicopter gunships to carry out a dozen operations over the weekend in Mali, while an extremist group threatened to launch attacks against countries taking part in the intervention to oust the Islamists from their strongholds.

France said it had targeted "terrorist vehicles" in six of the strikes over the last 24 hours, and that the campaign against the militants was making progress.

French forces have extended their deployment northward from the central town of Markala, reinforcing their presence in the towns of Niono and Mopti, according to Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman.

In an interview with France-5 TV, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he wasn't aware of any civilian casualties.

He said the air strikes had caused "significant" — though unspecified — losses among the jihadists, and only minor skirmishes involved French forces on the ground.

Also Sunday, the extremist group behind the deadly hostage crisis in Algeria threatened more attacks against foreign targets if France does not bring an immediate halt to its military operation in Mali.

In a statement, the Masked Brigade warned of more such attacks against any country backing France's military intervention in Mali.

"We promise all the countries that participated in the Crusader campaign ... that we will carry out more operations if they do not reverse their decision," it said, according to a transcript released by SITE Intelligence Group.

France began its military offensive in Mali on Jan. 11, and has said that African nations must take the lead though it could be some weeks before they are ready to do so.

On Sunday, France said that some 400 troops from Nigeria, Togo and Benin had arrived Sunday in Bamako to help train an African force for Mali. Troops from Chad, who are considered hardened fighters familiar with the desert-like terrain of northern Mali, also have arrived, Le Drian said.

A top official with the West African regional bloc said Sunday the cost of the African intervention could top $500 million.

ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, who gave an interview to state television in Ivory Coast, said the initial estimate "may vary depending on the needs" of the mission and the situation on the ground.

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Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.

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