BAMAKO, Mali The battle to retake Mali's north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists.
At the same time, nations in West Africa authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September.
The decision to begin the military operation was taken after the fighters, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, decided earlier this week to push even further south to the town of Konna, coming within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of Mopti, the first town held by the government and a major base for the Malian military.
Many believe that if Mopti were to fall, the Islamists could potentially seize the rest of the country, dramatically raising the stakes. The potential outcome was "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday.
France scrambled Mirage fighter jets from a base in neighboring Chad, as well as combat helicopters beginning the aerial assault on Friday. They have also sent in hundreds of troops to the front line, as well as to secure the capital. In just 24 hours, French forces succeeded in dispersing the Islamists from Konna, the town the fighters had seized in a bold advance earlier in the week, Le Drian said.
Malian military officials said they were now conducting sweeps, looking for snipers.
However, in a sign of how hard the battle ahead may be, the extremists succeeded in shooting down a French helicopter, the defense minister confirmed. The pilot died of his wounds while he was being evacuated. The Islamists are using arms stolen from ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's arsenal, as well as the weapons abandoned by Mali's military when they fled their posts in the face of the rebel advance.