Mali Islamists Vow to Strike 'at Heart' of France

Islamist forces based in northern Mali vowed Monday to avenge France's fierce military offensive against them on French soil.

"France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," said a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Asked where they would strike, Abou Dardar told AFP by telephone: "Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa and in Europe."

Authorities in France were already on high alert over fears of a backlash on home soil by Islamist extremists.

The MUJAO official also referred to France's eight hostages held in the Sahel region.

"We will make a statement on the hostages today. From today all the mujahedeen are together."

The French offensive has blocked the advance of Islamist forces towards the capital Bamako from their bases in the north which they have controlled since last April.

On Sunday, French Rafale fighter planes struck bases used by Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Gao, the main city in northern Mali, and Kidal.

Sixty Islamists were killed in Gao alone on Sunday, according to residents and a regional security force.

French warplanes also attacked rebel stockpiles of munitions and fuel further north at Afhabo, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Kidal, a regional security source said. The area is a stronghold of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).

And they hit a base further east at Lere, near the border with Mauritania, according to witnesses and a statement from Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Algeria on Sunday granted France permission to fly through its airspace to reach its targets. Previously, Algiers was hostile to any foreign intervention in Mali.

France launched the operation alongside the Malian army on Friday to counter a push south by the insurgents who had threatened to advance on the capital Bamako.

Gao residents said earlier that the French airstrikes had levelled the Islamists' position and forced them to flee.

"We can see smoke billowing from the base. There isn't a single Islamist left in town. They have all fled," a teacher said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

-- Timbuktu residents 'eager for jets to arrive' --

Residents of Timbuktu, which has seen some of the worst Islamist abuses over the past 10 months, said they were eager for French jets to arrive.

"Everyone agrees," said one resident, even if there was a risk that civilians might be killed in such an action. Already, he said, there was growing panic among the Islamists there.

French President Francois Hollande was to hold a cabinet meeting devoted to the Mali crisis early Monday.

And at the request of Paris, the UN Security Council was to meet later Monday to discuss the conflict, a spokesman for France's UN mission said.

Aides to Hollande described the militants as better trained and armed than expected.

"What has struck us markedly is how modern their equipment is and their ability to use it," one said, referring to the rebels' hit on a French helicopter, which fatally wounded its pilot, France's only confirmed loss.

Meanwhile a west African intervention force for Mali was taking shape.

The force has been authorised by the UN Security Council to help the Malian government reclaim control of the north. It will be commanded by General Shehu Abdulkadir of Nigeria, which will provide around 600 men.

Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal and Togo all pledged around 500 troops this weekend, while Benin said it would send 300. It remained unclear however when these forces would arrive.

Media reports have said France is deploying about 500 troops in Mali.

The French mission will be at full strength by Monday, primarily deployed around Bamako to protect the 6,000-strong expatriate community, said its commander, Colonel Paul Geze.

The Islamists took advantage of a power vacuum created by a March military coup to seize control of huge swathes of northern Mali, quickly imposing an extreme form of Islamic law.

They have destroyed centuries-old mausoleums they see as heretical, and perceived offenders against their moral code have been subjected to floggings, amputations and sometimes executions.

France's intervention has been backed by the European Union and the United States, while Britain is providing logistical support in the form of transport planes.

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