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France pounds militant strongholds in Mali


French warplanes have struck further north in Mali, pounding militant strongholds and forcing the insurgents to flee, as preparations for the African intervention force took shape in the capital.

In the third day of the French intervention on Sunday Rafale fighter planes struck bases used by Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Gao, the main city in northern Mali.

Their warplanes also attacked rebel stockpiles of munitions and fuel further north at Afhabo, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Kidal, a regional security source said. The area is a stronghold of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).

And they hit a base further east at Lere, near the border with Mauritania, according to witnesses and a statement from Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

"Stopping the terrorists -- it's done," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. "Today we started taking care of the terrorists' rear bases."

Asked how long France would take a leading role in the conflict, he replied "it is a question of weeks".

Algeria on Sunday granted France permission to fly through its airspace to reach its targets, Fabius added. Until now, Algiers has been hostile to any foreign intervention in Mali.

France launched the operation alongside the Malian army on Friday to counter a push south by the insurgents who had threatened to advance on the capital Bamako.

Residents in Gao, which has been under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), said the French airstrikes had levelled the Islamists' position and forced them to flee.

"We can see smoke billowing from the base. There isn't a single Islamist left in town. They have all fled," a teacher said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The French have done a good job. Nearly all the militants have fled Gao," said one local official, who also asked not to be named. "Those who are still there are hidden in houses and are waiting nightfall to flee."

"What we need now is for the (Malian) army to come here so that the miltants can't come back," a young student said.

Residents of Timbuktu, which has seen some of the worst abuses over the past 10 months, said they were eager for French jets to arrive.

"Everyone agrees," said one resident, even if there was a risk that civilians might be killed in such an action. Already, he said, there was growing panic among the militantsthere.

In France itself, authorities were on high alert over fears of a backlash on home soil by extremists.

French President Francois Hollande will hold a cabinet meeting devoted to the Mali crisis on Monday morning, his office announced.

And at the request of Paris, the UN Security Council will meet later on Monday to discuss the conflict, a spokesman for France's UN 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 the rebels' hit on a French helicopter, which fatally wounded its pilot, France's only confirmed loss.

-- Top militant leader 'Kojak' reported killed --

In the Malian capital Bamako on Sunday, commanders of the West African intervention force were preparing for the arrival of its first troops.

The force has been authorised by the UN Security Council to help the Malian 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.

Media reports have said France is deploying about 500 troops in Mali.

The French mission will be at full strength by Monday, primarily deployed around Bamako to protect the 6,000-strong expatriate community, said its commander, Colonel Paul Geze.

A Malian security source said a leading militant had been killed in the battle to retake the central town of Konna.

Abdel Krim, nicknamed "Kojak", was said to be a key lieutenant of Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, one of the militant groups which have controlled northern Mali since last April.

A Malian officer in the central town of Mopti, near the front line, said dozens, possibly as many as 100, militants had been killed in the recapture of Konna on Friday.

Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore has said that 11 Malian soldiers had died in the fighting. And Human Rights Watch, citing residents' reports, said at least 10 civilians had died as a result of the fighting there, including three children.

The militnats took advantage of a power vacuum created by a March military coup to seize control of huge swathes of northern Mali, quickly imposing an extreme form of law.

They have destroyed centuries-old mausoleums they see as heretical, and perceived offenders against their moral code have been subjected to floggings, amputations and sometimes executions.

France's intervention has been backed by the European Union and the United States, while Britain is providing logistical support in the form of transport planes.