France drives militants from Mali city; captors kill agent in Somalia

French President Francois Hollande said military action in Mali, a former French colony, was intended to "fight against terrorist elements."
 
 French intervention: French President Francois Hollande delivers a statement Friday in Paris regarding French military operations in Mali. IMAGE

BAMAKO, Mali — Islamist militants have been driven out of Konna, a city the extremists captured earlier this week, as French forces have launched military operations in north Mali, a Mali military official said Saturday.
Elsewhere, the Islamist captors of a French military agent killed him during a French commando raid in Somalia, the French Defense Ministry said Saturday. An additional two French commandos and 17 Islamists also died in the fighting, it said.
Gen. Martin Klotz, a spokesman for the ministry, declined to provide details of the overnight operation aimed at rescuing spy service agent Denis Allex — the code-name for the agent who was kidnapped by the militant Islamist group al-Shabab in Mogadishu, the capital, in 2009.
The raid early Saturday in Somalia could have been aimed at preventing al-Shabab fighters from harming the kidnapped French security official in reprisal for the French military intervention in Mali.
Lt. Col. Diarran Kone said the military does not yet control the city of Konna and are still searching for any hidden Islamist extremist elements there.
"The Islamists have been chased out of the city of Konna. We are doing sweeps of the city to find any hidden Islamist extremist elements," Kone said. "The full recover of the city is too early to determine as we do not yet control the city, and we remain vigilant."
Sanda Abu Mohammed, spokesman for Islamist group Ansar Dine, told The Associated Press he could not confirm if his fighters were still in Konna because communication networks have been down since late Friday.
"I cannot tell you if our fighters are still in the city of Konna or if they are not, because since yesterday afternoon I have not had contact with them as the telephone network has been down in this zone," Mohammed said.
For the past nine months, the militants have controlled a large swath of northern Mali, a lawless desert region where kidnapping has flourished.
France launched airstrikes Friday to help the government of Mali defeat the al-Qaida-linked militants who captured Konna on Thursday, pushing closer to the army's major base in central Mali and dramatically raising the stakes in the battle for this vast desert nation.
French President Francois Hollande said the "terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists" in northern Mali "show a brutality that threatens us all." He vowed that the operation would last "as long as necessary."
France said it was taking the action in Mali at the request of President Dioncounda Traore, who declared a state of emergency because of the militants' advance.
"French armed forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements," Hollande said Friday in Paris.
He did not give any details of the operation, other than to say that it was aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali, where seven of them already are being held captive.
France has led a diplomatic push for international action in northern Mali but efforts to get an African-led force together, or to train the weak Malian army, have dragged.
The United Nations Security Council has condemned the capture of Konna and urged U.N. member states to assist Mali "in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups."
Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north and sought backing from the U.N.
The Security Council authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions. Those include the training of Mali's military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since a military coup last year sent the nation into disarray.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that in Mali, France had carried out airstrikes. He refused to give details for security reasons.
France is operating helicopter gunships in Mali, two diplomats told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation publicly. French special forces, which have been operating in the region recently, are also believed to be taking part in the military operation, one diplomat said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the AP that Senegal and Nigeria also responded to an appeal from Mali's president for help to counter the militants.
The fighting Wednesday and Thursday for Konna represents the first clashes between Malian government forces and the Islamists in nearly a year, since the militants seized the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The Islamists seized the town of Douentza four months ago after brief standoff with a local militia, but pushed no farther until clashes broke out late Wednesday in Konna, a city of 50,000 people, where fearful residents cowered inside their homes. Konna is just 45 miles north of the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam.
In recent months, however, the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.
Turbaned fighters control major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did. And like in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.
Associated Press writers Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia; Sylvie Corbet and Jamey Keaten in Paris; and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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