French airstrikes on Islamist-held areas of Mali continued as the militant groups said they were still in control of key northern areas including the historic trading city of Timbuktu.
Military forces were trying to regain control of Diabaly, a town about 415 kilometers (258 miles) northeast of the capital, Bamako, which was overrun by the insurgents yesterday, Mali army spokesman Colonel Diarran Kone said by phone today.
“Operations are in progress to dislodge them,” he said. The fighters are “panicked and are in disarray.”
The French army started airstrikes on Jan. 11 to oust Islamist rebels who took control of much of northern Mali last year. The fighting has prompted hundreds to flee to neighboring countries and cities in the south, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Islamists retained control of cities where the French were attacking, Oumar Hamaha, a spokesman for the fighters, said by phone today.
“We are still in Kona, Diabaly, Gao and other northern regions,” he said. “France said we are not here. If true we invite them to come on the ground to see if we are not here. We invite the Malian army and Ecowas troops to come find us.”
West African defense chiefs met in Bamako today as countries including Ghana, Togo, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria pledged to send troops to the regional mission.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir, the Nigerian head of the regional force, told reporters. “Once the planning is properly conducted and you have the logistics support that you require, I believe it’s not an insurmountable problem.”
The African Union’s Peace and Security Council “acknowledged the assistance provided by France” and called on regional countries to quickly fulfill promises made to send troops to Mali in a statement on its website today.
The landlocked nation vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third- biggest gold producer. At least 13 international companies were engaged in gold exploration and production in Mali in 2010, according to a U.S. Geological Survey Report. Output of the metal for the country was 36,344 kilograms the same year.
The rebels exploited political instability in Bamako after a March coup to seize control of the north. While the insurgents include Islamists such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s north African unit, there are also ethnic Touareg fighters seeking greater autonomy in the region.
Mali is now led by interim President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of a coup in March, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.
The country ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.
Its $10.6 billion economy contracted 4.5 percent last year and is forecast to expand 3 percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund, slower than the sub-Saharan African outlook of 5.25 percent.
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