BAMAKO, Mali The first days of the battle against Islamic extremists holding Mali’s north have left at least 11 civilians dead, including three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned trying to avoid falling bombs, a presidential spokesman said Sunday as troops from Mali’s neighbors are expected to join hundreds of French soldiers in the fight.
Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria agreed on Saturday to send soldiers, a day after France authorized airstrikes, dispatching fighter jets from neighboring Chad and bombing rebel positions north of Mopti, the last Malian-controlled town.
State television announced that the African troops, including as many as 500 each from Burkina Faso and Niger, are expected to begin arriving on Sunday. Britain has offered the use of its transport planes in order to help bring in the soldiers, according to a statement released by Prime Minister David Cameron’s office in London.
The African soldiers will work alongside French special forces, including a contingent that arrived Saturday in Bamako in order to secure the capital against retaliatory attacks by the al-Qaida-linked rebel groups occupying Mali’s northern half. National television broadcast footage of the French troops walking single-file out of the Bamako airport on Saturday, weapons strapped to their bodies or held over their shoulders.
Hundreds of Malians on Sunday also left the town of Lere for neighboring Mauritania, about 43 miles away, to escape the violence. Last year’s initial fighting prompted hundreds of thousands of Malians to flee the north, displacing them or making them refugees in neighboring countries.
The military operation began Friday, after the fall of the town of Konna on Thursday to the al-Qaida-linked groups. Konna is only 30 miles north of the government’s line of control, which begins at the town of Mopti, home to the largest concentration of Malian troops in the country.
The United Nations had cautioned that a military intervention needed to be properly planned, and outlined a step-by-step process that diplomats said would delay the operation until at least September of this year.