France in 'direct combat' in Mali within hours

France Mali fight

Komnotogo says he fears the Islamists are planning to hide within the mud-walled neighborhoods and use the population as a human shield.

"The jihadists have split up. They don't move around in big groups... they are out in the streets, in fours, and fives and sixes, and they are living inside the most inhabited neighborhoods,'' he said, explaining that they had taken over the homes of people who managed to flee before the road was cut off.

French warplanes bombarded the military camp, but there have been no airstrikes inside the actual town, which begins at the eastern wall of the garrison. Residents have evacuated the neighborhood called Bordeaux, after its sister city in France, which is only 500 meters (yards) from the camp, he said. They have moved mostly into a quarter called Berlin, about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the military installation.

"They are preventing the population from leaving. We have been trying to get our employees out, but they can't leave,'' said Komnotogo. "They have parked their pickup trucks inside the courtyards of empty homes. They have beards. And they wear boubous (a flowing robe). No one approaches them. Everyone is afraid,'' he said.

French President Francois Hollande authorized the airstrikes last Friday after the Islamists began a push southward toward the capital from the northern half of Mali that they control. They seized the Afghanistan-sized north last April in the chaos following a coup in Mali's normally-stable capital.

Five days of airstrikes have done little to erode the Islamist gains in Mali, which some in the West fear could turn the region into a launching pad for terrorist attacks. The bombardments began in the town of Konna, which the rebels occupied last Thursday. After initially saying they had stopped the rebel advance, Le Drian on Tuesday acknowledged that Konna was still in the hands of the rebels.

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