The Malian army backed by French troops on Friday wrested a key central town from Islamist rebels, as the UN warned up to a million people could be driven from their homes by fighting in coming months.
As a dramatic hostage siege unfolded in neighbouring Algeria – where Islamists took hundreds captive in a gas field to retaliate for the week-old military intervention in Mali, sparking a deadly commando raid – fighting has continued unabated on the ground in Mali.
French and Malian troops marked a victory over the rebels after days of fighting in Konna, a key town about 700 kilometres from the capital Bamako.
“We have wrested total control of Konna after inflicting heavy losses on the enemy,” the Malian army said in a brief statement.
Colonel Didier Dakouo, head of the Malian forces based in Sevare south of Konna told reporters his troops had “crushed the enemy”. “The heaviest fighting was in Ndegue, 20 kilometres from Konna,” he said.
A security source said Malian soldiers were backed by French air strikes to ease their entry into the town.
After the victory in Konna, a significant boost for the embattled Malian army, French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres stepped up calls to be allowed to deliver crucial medical aid to the area.
“Despite our repeated requests, we are still being denied access to the Konna region,” MSF operations director Malik Allaouna said in a statement.
The UN refugee agency warned fighting in the next few months could displace another 700,000 people, adding to some 350,000 already forced to flee their homes – taking the overall number of displaced over the million mark.
“We believe that in the near future there could be up to 300,000 people additionally displaced inside Mali, and over 400,000 additionally displaced in the neighbouring countries,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Flemming told reporters in Geneva.
Islamist rebel groups who have controlled northern Mali since April pushed south into government-held territory and seized Konna on January 10, spurring former colonial ruler France to launch a military campaign to halt their advance.
Paris says it already has 1,400 soldiers in Mali, set to increase to 2,500 troops, while regional powers have pledged some 5,800 troops for an African military force.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he would attend an emergency summit of the West African bloc ECOWAS on Saturday in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan to accelerate the African deployment.
“I will go there with a military attache and we will see with our African friends how we can speed up the deployment of MISMA,” or the International Mission for Mali Assistance, he told reporters.
Nigeria announced on Thursday it would boost its troop allotment for Mali from a planned 900 to 1,200 soldiers. A first contingent of 100 Togolese and Nigerian soldiers arrived in Mali late Thursday.
In urging the Senate to approve the deployment, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said: “our national security is under imminent threat or danger as a result of the crisis in northern Mali.”
Chad, which is not an ECOWAS member, has also promised 2,000 soldiers.
The crisis in Mali began when Tuareg separatists – boosted by weapons secured in Libya – took up arms for independence of the north last January, overwhelming the country’s under-equipped army.
In March angry soldiers overthrew the government in Bamako, and the rebel juggernaut, now joined by Islamic hardliners, toppled the north within days.
With little interest in the Tuareg desert nomads’ hopes for independence, the Islamists seeking strict sharia law pushed their erstwhile allies aside several months later, assuming full control of the zone.
The Malian conflict was unfolding in parallel to a fast-moving hostage crisis in Algeria, where Islamists were still holding an undetermined number of foreign hostages at a remote gas field Friday, as criticism mounted of Algiers’ decision to launch a deadly rescue bid at the site.