(BAMAKO, Mali) — The first U.S. Air Force flight into Mali since France launched an offensive this month on al Qaeda and allied rebel groups in the West African country arrived at a military base in the capital city of Bamako Monday afternoon.
Military public affairs officials say the C-17 plane carrying eight U.S. military personnel, 40 French soldiers, equipment and vehicles will be one of many such flights into Mali over the next several days in response to a request by the French government for help with transport.
French warplanes flew into Mali Jan. 11 when the jihadists rebel groups that had seized a huge swath of the country’s north tried to push farther south. Intense air strikes continue as French troops and the Malian army chase the militants out of key towns. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said significant progress was made Monday when French and Malian troops officially assumed control of the central towns of Diabaly and Douentza.
Another focus in the fight is in the region of Gao, where terror leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar had set up his headquarters. The commando unit of Belmokhtar’s Masked Bridgade is believed to have carried out the hostage siege in Algeria, and again Monday threatened to attack all countries offering support to France’s Operation Serval in Mali.
“We promise all the countries that participated in the Crusader campaign against the Azawad region that we will carry out more operations if they do not reverse their decision,” the Masked Brigade said in a statement released to a Mauritanian news agency.
“I do not understand how anyone can be killing people in the name of religion,” a language teacher in Bamako named Mahamadou told ABC News.
He showed ABC News pictures he took on his cell phone of U.S. soldiers the last time they were in northern Mali on a mission to train the local army. The training mission in the town of Servare was just a couple of months before the local rebels Belmokhtar supported seized the town. That was also before the fall of Libya when weapons and fighters poured into northern Mali. They easily overpowered the Malian army until France intervened.
In Bamako, French flags are now hot sellers at roadside stalls as residents fly them on car radio antennas to show appreciation. After Talibouna Gakou purchased a French flag he said he is hoping for more military support from the United States.
“People used to think terrorist was just a problem for Americans. When the United States went into Afghanistan a lot of people were unhappy. But now we see that they were right. Finally people understand that the fight against terrorism is the work of everybody,” said Gakou.
U.S. officials have said they will not send combat troops into Mali, but will support the mission in other ways. In addition to the transport flights, the military is sharing intelligence with France and has sent 100 military trainers to six neighboring West African countries that are sending troops under a U.N. mandate for a regional force to take the lead in the mission. A French military spokesman told reporters Monday 1,000 of an expected 3,300-strong West African force are now on the ground in Mali.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN