Algeria has authorized French warplanes to use its airspace for bombing raids on neighboring Mali, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday.
Fabius, who was speaking after French Rafale fighter jets bombed Islamist bases near Gao in northern Mali from their base in France, said Algeria’s cooperation was indicative of the extent of international support for the intervention in Mali.
“Algeria has authorised the overflight of its territory, for which I thank them,” Fabius said, according to AFP. He adding that France was hopeful Algeria would provide further help to the campaign by denying Islamist radicals an escape route from the north of Mali.
“We are working with the Algerians and our discussions are ongoing. What we have in mind is that if African troops move into the north of the country the Algerians will have to close their border.”
Algeria had been the most reticent of Mali’s neighbors about the prospect of foreign troops being sent in to reclaim control of the north of the country, which the Islamists have occupied for some nine months.
France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French intervention on Friday had prevented the advancing rebels from seizing Bamako. He vowed that air strikes would continue.
“The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe,” he told French television.
In Gao, a dusty town on the banks of the Niger river where Islamists have imposed an extreme form of sharia law, residents said French jets pounded the airport and rebel positions. A huge cloud of black smoke rose from the militants’ camp in the city’s north, and pick-up trucks ferried dead and wounded to hospital.
“The planes are so fast you can only hear their sound in the sky,” resident Soumaila Maiga said by telephone. “We are happy, even though it is frightening. Soon we will be delivered.”
Paris said four state-of-the-art Rafale jets flew from France to strike rebel training camps, logistics depots and infrastructure in Gao with the aim of weakening the rebels and preventing them from returning southward.
A spokesman for Ansar Dine, one of the main Islamist factions, said the French had also bombed targets in the towns of Lere and Douentza. Residents said rebel fighters had fled from Douentza aboard pick-up trucks.
France has deployed about 550 soldiers to Mali under “Operation Serval” - named after an African wildcat - split between Bamako and the town of Mopti, 500 km (300 miles) north.
In Bamako, a Reuters cameraman saw more than 100 French troops disembark on Sunday from a military cargo plane at the international airport, on the outskirts of the capital.
The city itself was calm, with the sun streaking through the dust enveloping the city as the seasonal Harmattan wind blew from the Sahara. Some cars drove around with French flags draped from the windows to celebrate Paris’s intervention.