French target Mali's Islamic extremists

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BAMAKO, Mali -- The battle to retake Mali's north from the al-Qaida-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists.

At the same time, nations in West Africa authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali, fast-forwarding a military intervention that was not due to start until September.

The decision to begin the military operation was taken after the fighters, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, decided earlier this week to push even farther south to the town of Konna, coming within 31 miles of Mopti, the first town held by the government and a major base for the Malian military.

Many believe that if Mopti were to fall, the Islamists could potentially seize the rest of the country, dramatically raising the stakes. The potential outcome was "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday.

France scrambled Mirage fighter jets from a base in neighboring Chad, as well as combat helicopters, beginning the aerial assault on Friday. They have also sent in hundreds of troops to the front line, as well as to secure the capital. In just 24 hours, French forces succeeded in dispersing the Islamists from Konna, the town the fighters had seized in a bold advance earlier in the week, Le Drian said.

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The sudden military operation is a reversal of months of debate over whether Western powers should get involved in a military bid to oust the militants, who took advantage of a coup in Mali's capital in March to capture the north.

In a statement released Saturday, the bloc representing nations in West Africa, ECOWAS, said they had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said they made the decision "in light of the urgency of the situation."

In Washington, a U.S. official confirmed that the country has offered to send drones to Mali. A French official close to the presidency said President Francois Hollande spoke with the British prime minister, who offered troop transport aircraft.

Neither official could be named because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

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