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French strikes hit key Mali town held by Islamists

By The Associated Press

This article was originally published January 17, 2013 at 6:40 a.m. Updated January 17, 2013 at 7:35 a.m.

— Fighting broke out between Islamists and Malian soldiers in the city whose capture by militants first prompted French military intervention, while French forces kept up their bombardments of another key town, fleeing residents said Thursday.

Mali soldiers claimed to have recaptured the central town of Konna, although this could not be confirmed, while the French continued airstrikes on the Islamist-held town of Diabaly, at least 125 miles away.

Residents who escaped Diabaly said French bombs continued to hit Islamist positions there overnight, but they said the town remained under the control of the radical Islamists who have advanced south after controlling northern Mali for nearly a year.

“There were bombardments last night in Diabaly and civilians have continued to come here to Niono," said Oumar Coulibaly, a resident of Niono. “This morning I saw people who came from Diabaly and the Islamists still occupy the city.”

Diabaly, a town of some 35,000 people, is just 250 miles northeast of the capital, Bamako.

Meanwhile, France has increased its troops’ strength in Mali to 1,400, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

France expects to ramp up to 2,500 soldiers that will include French Foreign Legionnaires. It has committed helicopter gunships, fighter jets, surveillance planes and refueling tankers in the fight against the Islamists who seized control of northern Mali last year.

EU foreign ministers Thursday approved sending a military training mission to Mali.

No combat role is envisioned for the EU training mission. Instead, it will train soldiers, provide advice on command and control procedures, and offer instruction on human rights and the protection of civilians.

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