Mali Islamist threatens to bring battle to France

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Islamist forces based in northern Mali vowed yesterday to avenge France’s fierce military offensive against them on French soil, as authorities said Islamist insurgents had grabbed more territory in Mali and gotten much closer to the capital.

“France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France,” said a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

 Asked where they would strike, Abou Dardar said: “Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa and in Europe.” The MUJAO official referred to eight French hostages held in the Sahel region. “We will make a statement on the hostages today.”

Algeria on Jan. 13 granted France permission to fly through its airspace to counter a push south by the insurgents, who had threatened to advance on the capital, Bamako.

Sixty Islamists were killed in Gao alone on Jan. 13, according to a regional security force.

“Stopping the terrorists – it’s done,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. “Today we started taking care of the terrorists’ rear bases.” Asked how long France would take a leading role in the conflict, he replied, “It is a question of weeks.”

In the latest setback, however, the extremists overran the garrison village of Diabaly in central Mali, France’s defense minister said in Paris. Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday the rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army that couldn’t hold them back.”

 The Malian military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency began almost a year ago in the northwest African nation.

French radio Europe 1 broadcasted a telephone interview with Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of MUJAO, which controls part of northern Mali. In it he dared the French to “come down on the ground if they’re real men. We’ll welcome them with open arms,” he said. “France has opened the gates of hell … it has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.”

The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said yesterday that 12 people wounded in the conflict were being treated by an MSF team at a regional hospital in Timbuktu, a roughly seven-hour journey from the conflict zone.

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