BAMAKO, Mali – Despite a punishing bombardment by French warplanes, al-Qaida-linked insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, seizing a strategic military camp that brought them far closer to the governments seat of power.
Declaring France had opened the gates of hell with its assault, the rebels threatened retribution.
France has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia, said Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the rebel organizations controlling the north, speaking on radio Europe 1.
French fighter jets have been pummeling the insurgents desert stronghold in the north since Friday, determined to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
The Islamist fighters responded with a counteroffensive Monday, overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the Segou region, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety.
France expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat.
But the intense assault, including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who were only 250 miles from the capital, Bamako, in the far south.