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 today as troops from Mali's neighbors are expected to join hundreds of French soldiers in the fight. Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Nigeria agreed yesterday to send as many as 500 soldiers each, a day after France authorized airstrikes, dispatching fighter jets from neighboring Chad and bombing rebel positions north of Mopti, the last Malian-controlled town.
Britain has offered the use of its transport planes in order to help bring in the soldiers, according to a statement by Prime Minister David Cameron's office. The African soldiers will work alongside French special forces, including a contingent that arrived yesterday in Bamako in order to secure the capital against retaliatory attacks by the al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups occupying Mali's northern half. "We will strengthen our operation depending on the situation," says France's defense minister, adding that his country has international support and "the Americans seconded us" with intelligence and logistical support, though he did not elaborate. Hundreds of Malians today left the town of Lere for neighboring Mauritania to escape the violence. Last year's initial fighting prompted hundreds of thousands of Malians to flee the north. (Read more Mali stories.)