French troops in Chad prepare to be airlifted into Mali yesterday. Photograph: Nicolas Vissac/AFP/Getty Images
French pilot among dead as Hollande puts country on terror alert and warns of more fighting to stop Islamist advance
The French president placed his country on terror alert as his military stepped up their operations against Islamist rebels in Mali with an air assault that is believed to have killed at least 100 people.
FranÃ§ois Hollande warned of a heightened risk of retaliation in Europe following France’s escalation of a military intervention that was launched on Friday to recapture the north of Mali from rebels acting against the country’s government. “We have already held back the progress of our adversaries and inflicted heavy losses on them. But our mission is not over yet,” Hollande said.
The latest air strikes led to the death of a French pilot, Damien Boiteux, and, according to witnesses, those of more than 100 rebel and government troops following fighting for the strategic town of Konna. Malian officials said they had wrested the town from rebel control.
The intensification of hostilities came after western governments voiced alarm following the capture of Konna by Islamist rebels on Thursday in their first major drive towards the capital, Bamako, since seizing control of the north last spring.
David Cameron, who backs the French intervention, spoke of his “deep concern” about the latest developments. His remarks came as the west African regional economic bloc, Ecowas, authorised the immediate deployment of troops to Mali a day after French forces began their operations.
The intervention in Mali represents Hollande’s biggest foreign policy test since becoming president in May. He has so far enjoyed widespread political support at home and abroad for his actions in Mali.
France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said hundreds of French troops and aircraft had been involved in fighting at three locations in the centre of Mali, including against an Islamist command centre.
A French army unit also attacked a column of rebels heading towards the town of Mopti. He insisted that France was compelled to act quickly to stop the Islamist offensive, which he said could allow “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe”.
In a separate military operation in Somalia, a French soldier was killed during a botched commando raid on an Islamist compound to rescue a captured secret service agent. The hostage is also believed to have been killed in the operation.
Another commando is listed as missing amid claims that he was injured and captured by fighters belonging to the Islamist al-Shabaab movement.
The operation had failed “despite the sacrifice of two of our soldiers and without doubt the assassination of our hostage”, Hollande said. But he said it confirmed “France’s determination not to give in to the blackmail of terrorists” and reiterated his commitment to pursuing military intervention in Mali.
Although officials denied there was any connection between the rescue effort and the operation launched in Mali, the French military escalation would have complicated the position of the hostage in Somalia.
The secret service agent, “Denis Allex”, is believed to have been killed by his captors during a failed helicopter raid in Bula Mareer, 70 miles south of Mogadishu. The assault faltered after resistance at the compound, which was reinforced by fighters at a neighbouring training camp who heard the helicopters.
The agent and a colleague were kidnapped in 2009 while assigned to the international effort to assist Somalia’s transitional government in Mogadishu. His colleague escaped a month later.
Residents of the town described explosions and gunfire while an al-Shabaab official said that the fighting began after helicopters had dropped off French commandos.
The French ministry of defence said that the decision to launch the raid to rescue Allex had been taken after there had been no progress in three years of attempted negotiations to secure his release.
“Faced with the intransigence of the terrorists, who refused for three years to engage in all negotiations, and who were holding Denis Allex in inhuman conditions, an operation was planned and set in effect,” said a spokesman.