BAMAKO, Mali — Islamist forces on Monday launched a fresh attack in Mali's government-held south and vowed to strike "at the heart of France" — including on French soil — to avenge a fierce military offensive against them.
Security sources reported the jihadists had attacked Diabali, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the capital Bamako, on the fourth day of the French campaign, which has led to heavy losses in the extremists' ranks.
"The Islamists attacked the town of Diabali today [Monday]. They came from the Mauritanian border where they were bombed by the French army," said a Malian security source on condition of anonymity.
He said the Malian army had urgently dispatched a helicopter to the town.
A regional security source confirmed the attack, which he said was being led by Abou Zeid, a leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Reuters quoted residents and Malian military officials as saying that Islamists counterattacked after the insurgents infiltrated overnight in small groups.
The French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian Army that couldn’t hold them back.”
A leader of one of the Islamist groups occupying Mali's vast north, meanwhile, vowed revenge against France, which is on high alert and has stepped up security on home soil.
"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 AQIM.
Asked where they would attack, Abou Dardar told AFP by telephone: "Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa, and in Europe."
Another MUJAO leader Omar Ould Hamaha, nicknamed "Redbeard,” warned on radio Europe 1 that France had "opened the doors of hell" with its intervention and faced a situation "worse than Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia.”
France launched the operation alongside the Malian army on Friday as the insurgents threatened to advance on Bamako after months of torpor over a planned African military intervention, which experts had said could only get off the ground in September.
On Sunday, French Rafale fighter planes struck bases used by al-Qaida-linked fighters in Gao and Kidal, two of the main towns in northern Mali.
Some 60 Islamists were killed in Gao alone on Sunday, according to residents and a regional security source.
French warplanes also attacked rebel stockpiles of munitions and fuel near Kidal, a stronghold of rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).
And they hit the town of Nampala some 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Diabali, as well as a base in Lere, near the border with Mauritania.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday the Islamists had "retreated" in the east of Mali but that French forces were facing a "difficult" situation in the west where rebels are well armed.
In Bamako, the French high school was closed on Monday as a "precautionary measure,” French Ambassador Christian Royer said.
MUJAO's Abu Dardar also referred to France's seven hostages held in Mali. "We will make a statement on the hostages today. From today all the mujahedeen are together."
Algeria on Sunday granted France permission to fly through its airspace to reach its targets. Previously, Algiers was hostile to any foreign intervention in Mali.
At the request of Paris, the U.N. Security Council was to meet later Monday to discuss the conflict, a spokesman for France's U.N. mission said.
Aides to Hollande described the militants as better trained and armed than expected.
"What has struck us markedly is how modern their equipment is and their ability to use it," one said, referring to an Islamist hit on a French helicopter, which fatally wounded its pilot, France's only confirmed loss.
Meanwhile a west African intervention force for Mali was taking shape.
The force has been authorized by the U.N. Security Council to help Mali's government reclaim control of the north. It will be commanded by General Shehu Abdulkadir of Nigeria, which will provide around 600 men.
Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, and Togo all pledged around 500 troops this weekend, while Benin said it would send 300. It remained unclear however when these forces would arrive.
France's intervention has been backed by the European Union, NATO, and the United States, while Britain is providing logistical support in the form of transport planes.
Germany said Monday it was considering ways to help France in its mission in Mali such as providing logistical, medical, or humanitarian aid.
Reuters contributed to this report
© AFP 2013