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France continues Mali airstrikes; residents frantic

By Katarina Hoije and Greg Botelho, CNN
January 18, 2013 -- Updated 1040 GMT (1840 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. military plans to fly French troops to nations near Mali, an official says
  • France has been helping Mali's government battle Islamist militants from its north
  • Several other nations have vowed support for Mali
  • French airstrikes have recently struck near the central town of Diabaly

Bamako, Mali (CNN) -- French warplanes pounded Islamist militant targets in Mali Thursday as international efforts to help the African nation's government fight insurgents gained momentum.

For a fourth consecutive day, airstrikes hit in and around Diabaly -- a town in central Mali, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the capital of Bamako -- prompting men, women and children to flee or find cover, witnesses said.

"People are desperate to get out," said Ibrahim Toure, a civilian who left Diabaly on Thursday.

French fighter jets targeted the town since Monday, after Islamist rebels settled in a military camp on its outskirts that had been abandoned by Malian soldiers.

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The Islamists told Diabaly's residents they could stay, and they prevented some from leaving, said Cheick Oumar, a construction worker in the town.

Read more: Why Mali matters

"People are left without protection," he said. "The rebels say they will not hurt anyone, but people are afraid they will turn Diabaly into a new Islamist stronghold and impose Sharia law."

Mali had been one of the most successful democracies in Africa until last year, when a coup toppled the president and Islamists capitalized on the chaos by establishing themselves in the north.

Read more: What's behind the instability in Mali?

There, they imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law by banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also damaged Timbuktu's historic tombs and shrines.

The International Criminal Court has launched a war-crimes investigation amid reports that residents have been mutilated and killed for disobeying the Islamists. The United Nations has noted accounts of amputations, floggings and public executions such as the July stoning of a couple who had reportedly had an affair.

As the rebels moved southward toward Bamako, such reports prompted an international response, led by the French.

In addition to sending its warplanes, the French have stationed about 1,400 troops inside Mali in "Operation Serval."

Europe's largest powers appeared united in their goal of removing al Qaeda-linked militants from the West African nation, where Islamist rebels are fighting to form their own territory in the north. This effort gained renewed urgency after militants -- upset at Algeria for allowing warplanes to use its airspace to launch attacks in Mali -- took hostage scores of Algerian and foreign workers at an Algerian gas facility about 60 kilometers (about 40 miles) west of the Libyan border.

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Nations including Germany, Belgium and Canada have pledged to contribute transport planes. Others, such as Italy, are promising "logistical support" for the operation.

The United States is supporting the French-led effort in Mali "with intelligence and airlift," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The plan is for U.S. military aircraft, accompanied by U.S. military security forces, to fly French troops and equipment into a neighboring country -- because the airport in Bamako is "very busy" -- after which they can move on the ground, a U.S. defense official said.

Washington has not decided whether to grant French requests for surveillance and aerial refueling services, the official said.

By this weekend, U.S. trainers will be in Africa "to offer pre-deployment training and sustainment packages" for troops from African nations who are heading to Mali.

Read more: France, Germany and Italy: Terrorists in Mali must go

In response to a request for help from Malian authorities, European Union foreign ministers agreed Thursday on a mission to train Mali's army, the EU said. The mission is to include instructors, support staff and force protection for 15 months, it added. The agency has said about 450 non-combat troops will be launched, perhaps by next month.

French President Francois Hollande has said it was a "necessary decision" to enter the country.

"There are terrorist networks which, following what happened in Libya last year, have installed themselves in a large part of West Africa and are trying to destabilize the area and are involved in trafficking," he said Thursday. "Our duty is to put an end to this, and France assumes its responsibility."

Journalist Katarina Hoije reported from Bamako, and Greg Botelho wrote this story from Atlanta. CNN's Chris Lawrence, Barbara Starr, Jethro Mullen, Joe Sterling and Tim Lister contributed to the report.

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