France's President Francois Hollande (1st R) escorts his Interior Minister Manuel Valls (2nd L) after a defense meeting focused on the Malian conflict at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, Jan. 13, 2013. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed Friday that France had sent troops to help Mali stop advance of Islamist rebels. (Xinhua/Etienne Laurent)
BAMAKO, Jan. 13 (Xinhua) -- The French air force on Sunday extended strike further north to Gao, one of the three major towns controlled by rebels in northern Mali, according to reports from local residents and official sources in Paris.
The French Defense Ministry confirmed the airstrike by four Rafale fighter jets, after witnesses reported bombardment of rebel positions around Gao, the hub of the rebel group MUJAO.
The aircraft taking off from France targeted training camps, infrastructure and logistic depots of terrorist groups, according to the ministry.
Military observers say Sunday's airstrike marked a turning- point of the French operation in Mali, where French troops centered on actions in central Mali to "stop" rebel offensives in the previous days.
In the region of Gao, which has the same name for its major town, residents remained indoors, terrified amid morning air raids.
"Two planes have just begun to open fire, there are 15 minutes, around us. We are all in our houses," one of the residents told Xinhua.
Another witness said, "The raids concerned the places held by Jihadists. I saw smoke rising from the camps of Jihadists."
Rebels including MUJAO, AQIM, Ansar Dine and the MNLA occupied Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in the aftermath of a military coup on March 22, 2012.
The MNLA seeking independence was soon maginalized, while the other groups vow to impose an extremist version of Muslim Sharia law throughout Mali.
Fighting erupted in the past days after the Malian government and Ansar Dine failed to reach any deal in talks on a solution to the Mali crisis.
On Friday, Paris confirmed its military operations in Mali to back the government forces in fighting the advancing rebels, who had seized the central town of Konna threatening the southern part of Mali, including the capital Bamako.
The Malian military said it regained control of Konna with the air support of the French army, vowing to uproot rebels in further actions in cooperation with former colonial power France and regional countries.
More than 100 people including both rebels and government troops have been killed in the battle over Konna.
Support continues to pour in with groups of French and Nigerian soldiers landing in Bamako on Saturday. Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger said they would each send 500 troops to Mali to boost the Malian army.
The 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Sunday announced a plan for an extraordinary summit in Abidjan, capital of Cote d'Ivoir, next week pending a joint action in northern Mali.
Cote d'Ivoir President Alassane Ouattara, chairman of ECOWAS, on Friday declared the start of a U.N.-mandated operation to deploy more than 3,000 African soldiers to Mali.
Late last year, the UN Security Council approved an intervention plan submitted by ECOWAS to restore Mali's territorial integrity and constitutional rule.
Al-Qaida's branch in North Africa AQIM is considered a major threat in the Sahel region. The military intervention plan was drawn up out of fear that northern Mali could become a safe haven for terrorism and drug and human trafficking.
WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (Xinhua) -- U.S. forces provided "limited support" for a botched French raid in Somalia aimed to free a hostage, President Barack Obama said on Sunday.
In a letter to Congress, Obama said that U.S. forces provided " limited technical support to the French forces" in the latter's raid to rescue a French citizen being held hostage by the al-Qaeda- linked militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia. Full story