BAMAKO/PARIS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels launched a counteroffensive in Mali on Monday after four days of French air strikes on their northern strongholds, seizing the central town of Diabaly and promising to drag France into a brutal Afghanistan-style war.
France, which has poured hundreds of troops into the capital Bamako in recent days, carried out more air raids on Monday in the vast desert area seized last year by an Islamist alliance grouping al Qaeda’s north African wing AQIM alongside Mali’s home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine militant groups.
“France has opened the gates of hell for all the French,” a spokesman for MUJWA, Oumar Ould Hamaha, told Europe 1 radio. “She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.”
Paris is determined to shatter Islamist domination of northern Mali, which many fear could become a launchpad for terrorism attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
MUJWA, which has imposed strict sharia law in its northern fiefdom of Gao, promised France would pay for air strikes on the city. Dozens of its fighters died on Sunday when rockets hit a fuel depot and a customs house being used as a headquarters.
Launching a counter-attack far to the southwest of recent fighting, Islamists dislodged government forces from the town of Diabaly, just 350 km (220 miles) northeast of Bamako. French and Malian troops attempting to retake the town were battling Islamists shouting ‘Allahu akbar’, residents said.
The rebels infiltrated the town overnight from the porous border region with Mauritania, home to AQIM camps housing well-equipped and trained foreign fighters.
France, which has repeatedly said it has abandoned its role as the policeman of its former African colonies, convened a U.N. Security Council meeting for Monday to discuss the Mali crisis.
“ORGANISED AND FANATICAL”
“We knew that there would be a counter-attack in the west because that is where the most determined, the most organised and fanatical elements are,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France’s BFM TV.
France has said its sudden intervention on Friday, responding to an urgent appeal from Mali’s president prompted by an advance by a heavily armed rebel convoy, stopped the Islamists from seizing the dusty capital of Bamako.
President Francois Hollande says Operation Serval - named after an African wildcat - is solely aimed at supporting the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS which received U.N. backing in December for a military intervention to dislodge the rebels.
Under pressure from Paris, regional states have said they hope to send in their forces this week. Military chiefs from ECOWAS nations will meet in Bamako on Tuesday but regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that training and deploying troops will take time.
Two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bastion of democracy in turbulent West Africa but that image unravelled after a military coup in March left a power vacuum for MNLA Tuareg rebels to seize the desert north.
The MUJWA, an AQIM splinter group drawing on support from Arabs and other ethnic groups, wrested control of Gao - the main city of the north - from the Tuaregs in June, shocking Mali’s liberal Muslim majority with amputation of hands for theft under Sharia law.
Last week’s drive toward Bamako appeared to have been led by Ansar Dine, founded by renegade MNLA commander Iyad ag Ghali in his northern fiefdom of Kidal.
The group has said that the famed shrines of ancient desert trading town Timbuktu - a UNESCO world heritage site - were un-Islamic and idolatrous. Much of the area’s religious heritage has now been destroyed, sparking international outrage.
Hollande’s intervention has won plaudits from Western leaders but raises the threat level for eight French hostages held by al Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for the 30,000 French expatriates living in neighbouring, mostly Muslim states.
Concerned about reprisals at home, France has tightened security at public buildings and on public transport.
However, France’s top anti-terrorist judge, Marc Trevidic, played down the risk of Islamists carrying out an imminent attack, telling French media: “They’re not very organised right now ... It could be a counter attack later on after the defeat on the ground. It’s often like that.”
In its first casualty of the campaign, Paris said a French pilot was killed on Friday when rebels shot at his helicopter.
Hours earlier, a French intelligence officer held hostage in Somalia by al Shabaab militants linked to al Qaeda was killed in a failed commando raid to free him.
The fighting in Mali has already driven hundreds of refugees across the border into neighbouring Mauritania, aid groups say.
Military analysts warn that if French action was not followed up by a robust deployment of ECOWAS forces, with logistical and financial support from NATO, then the whole U.N.-mandated Mali mission was unlikely to succeed.
“The French action was an ad-hoc measure. It’s going to be a mess for a while, it depends on how quickly everyone can come on board,” said Hussein Solomon, a professor at the University of the Free State, South Africa.
He voiced grave doubts about the prospects of a properly equipped and trained ECOWAS force deploying effectively in a ground operation to follow up French air strikes.
“It’s imperative that other NATO countries get involved,” he said. “Everybody talks about the threat of global terrorism, but then where is the global response?”
Officials in Washington have said the United States would share intelligence with France and was considering sending unarmed surveillance drones. Britain has made available two giant C17 transport planes which will ferry French medical gear, tanks and trunks to Mali this week. (Reporting By Daniel Flynn, editing by Peter Millership)