Mali Islamists Gain Ground Despite French Fighting

A photo taken on September 21, 2012 shows a group of armed Islamists gathered in Gao, the biggest city in northern Mali now under the control of armed Islamist groups. Perhaps the most startling thing about these fighters along this frontier route is that nearly all of them are from sub-Saharan Africa rather than just the Maghreb. 'Me too, I am surprised,' Nigerien Hicham Bilal, who is leading a Katiba (combat unit) to Gao, admitted to AFP. 'Every day we have new volunteers. They come from Togo, Benin, Niger, Guinea, Senegal, Algeria and elsewhere.'

Armed Islamists gather in Gao, northern Mali, Sept. 21, 2012.

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French radio Europe 1 broadcast a telephone interview with Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which controls part of northern Mali. In it he dared the French to "come down on the ground if they're real men. We'll welcome them with open arms," he said. "France has opened the gates of hell ... it has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."

The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, known by its initials in French as MSF, said Monday that 12 people wounded in the conflict were being treated by an MSF team at a regional hospital in Timbuktu, a roughly seven-hour journey from the conflict zone.

"We are worried about the people living close to the combat zones, and we call on all the parties to the conflict to respect the safety of civilians and to leave medical facilities untouched," said Rosa Crestani, MSF emergency response coordinator.

Mali's north, an area the size of France itself, was occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels nine months ago, following a coup in the capital. For nearly as long, the international community has debated what to do. In December, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a military intervention, but only after an exhaustive list of pre-emptive measures were fulfilled, starting with training the Malian military, which was supposed to take the lead in the offensive.

All of that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south, one on the mostly east-west axis of Douentza to the garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, and a second heading from a locality north of Diabaly toward Segou, the administrative capital of Central Mali.

Had either Segou or Mopti fallen, many feared that the Islamists could advance toward the capital.

French President Francois Hollande deployed 550 French troops to Mali and authorized the airstrikes which began Friday, initially concentrated in the north. The French are using Mirage jets stationed in Chad, which are able to carry 250-kilogram (550-pound) bombs. They are also using Gazelle helicopter gunships and the Rafale jet, based in France.

Britain over the weekend authorized sending several C-17 transport planes to help France bring more troops. The United States is sending drones, as well as communications and logistical support.

Since seizing control of Mali's upper half, the Islamists have imposed an austere form of Islam, foreign to the people of Mali, who have long practiced a moderate religion. They have cut off the hands and feet of thieves, in public spectacles that have left outdoor squares awash in blood. Women live with increasingly less freedom, and are required to fully cover themselves. They have been flogged and whipped for offenses ranging from wearing eyeshadow or perfume, to not covering their hands.

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AP writer Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.

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