BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The first days of the battle against Islamic extremists holding Mali's north have left at least 11 civilians dead, including three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned trying to avoid falling bombs, a presidential spokesman said Sunday as troops from Mali's neighbors are expected to join hundreds of French soldiers in the fight.
Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria agreed on Saturday to send soldiers, a day after France authorized airstrikes, dispatching fighter jets from neighboring Chad and bombing rebel positions north of Mopti, the last Malian-controlled town.
State television announced that the African troops, including as many as 500 each from Burkina Faso and Niger, are expected to begin arriving on Sunday. Britain has offered the use of its transport planes in order to help bring in the soldiers, according to a statement released by Prime Minister David Cameron's office in London.
The African soldiers will work alongside French special forces, including a contingent that arrived Saturday in Bamako in order to secure the capital against retaliatory attacks by the al-Qaida-linked rebel groups occupying Mali's northern half. National television broadcast footage of the French troops walking single-file out of the Bamako airport on Saturday, weapons strapped to their bodies or held over their shoulders.
Hundreds of Malians on Sunday also left the town of Lere for neighboring Mauritania, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) away, to escape the violence. Last year's initial fighting prompted hundreds of thousands of Malians to flee the north, displacing them or making them refugees in neighboring countries.
The military operation began Friday, after the fall of the town of Konna on Thursday to the al-Qaida-linked groups. Konna is only 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the government's line of control, which begins at the town of Mopti, home to the largest concentration of Malian troops in the country.
The United Nations had cautioned that a military intervention needed to be properly planned, and outlined a step-by-step process that diplomats said would delay the operation until at least September of this year.
The rebels' decision to push south, and the swift fall of Konna, changed everything. After an appeal for help from Mali's president, French President Francois Hollande sent in the Mirage jets and combat helicopters, pounding rebel convoys and destroying a militant base. Footage of the jets provided to French television stations showed the triangle-shaped aircrafts screaming across the sky over northern Mali. French newspaper Le Monde reported that the jets dropped at least two, 250-kilogram (550-pound) bombs over militant targets.
The human toll has not yet been calculated, but a communique read on state television late Saturday said that at least 11 Malians were killed in Konna.
Sory Diakite, the mayor of Konna, says the dead included children who drowned after they threw themselves into a river in an effort to escape the bombardments.
"Others were killed inside their courtyards, or outside their homes. People were trying to flee to find refuge. Some drowned in the river. At least three children threw themselves in the river. They were trying to swim to the other side. And there has been significant infrastructure damage," said the mayor, who fled the town with his family and is now in Bamako.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday that France now has more than 400 troops in Bamako, mainly to ensure the safety of French citizens and also to send a signal to the extremists.
"We will strengthen our operation depending on the situation," he said on a political talk show with itele and Europe 1 radio. Le Drian said that Rafale fighter jets will be part of the operation and that technical support will be arriving in the hours ahead.
He said that France has international support and "the Americans seconded us" with intelligence and logistical support, though he did not elaborate.
A senior British official suggested Sunday that UK personnel could also play a role in training the Malian army.
Africa minister Mark Simmonds told Sky News television that "we may well, through a European Union mechanism, provide training and support for the Malian army to give them strength to bring back the integrity of the Malian country in totality.
"It's absolutely essential, as part of our obligations as a permanent member of the Security Council that we provide assistance when we are requested," he said.
Simmonds also gave details of the said details of Britain's logistical help, saying that a pair C-17s — large Boeing-built transport planes adapted for operating out of crude airfields — would be dispatched to the area.
Storage hangars and "sensitive sites" were among targets destroyed so far and the Islamists lost a "significant number" in the fighting, Le Drian said. "The intervention is still in progress and we will continue" as long as needed.
Human rights groups have warned that any military intervention will exact a humanitarian price. As Mali and the international community took time to prepare for intervention in the north, the rebels affiliated with al-Qaida were able to dig into the terrain, and prepare for war. The rebels occupied Mali's northern half, an area larger than Afghanistan, in the chaos following a coup in Mali's capital last March.
With no clear leader at the head of the country, Mali's military simply gave up when the rebels arrived, retreating hundreds of miles to the south without a fight. In the nine months since then, the extremists have imposed their austere and severe form Islam, and those who disobey their rules are beaten with whips and camel switches. Public amputations of the hands of thieves have become a regular spectacle.
They have also used their nine-month siege of the north to dig into the landscape, creating elaborate defenses, including tunnels and ramparts using the construction equipment abandoned by fleeing construction crews.
In addition to the civilians, a French pilot was killed after the Islamists downed his combat helicopter, in a sign of how dangerous the terrain has become even for trained, special forces.
Associated Press writers Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali; Elaine Ganley in Paris; Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania; Robbie Corey-Boulet in Ivory Coast and Cassandra Vinograd and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.