Mali Islamist gangs: France taking the fight to radical Islamists

(CNN) -- French troops, on the ground and in the air in dusty and dangerous Mali, are taking the fight to radical Islamists there, French President Francois Hollande said Friday.

"French military forces have brought their support to the Malian forces this afternoon to fight against these terrorist elements," said Hollande, speaking from the Elysee Palace in Paris "This operation will last as long as it is necessary. I will regularly inform the French people about its course."

It is not immediately known how many French troops are deployed in the country. But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the French military has launched airstrikes.

"Mali is facing an aggression by terrorist elements," Hollande said. "Mali is facing a terrorist aggression in the north and the whole world is aware of their brutality and extremism. Today it is therefore the very existence of this friendly state that is at stake, as is the security of its population and of our own 6,000 citizens living there."

France, which has troops in many locations in Africa, had been saying it wouldn't send combat troops Mali and has pledged to scale back on intervening in local politics and conflicts in Africa. For example, it turned down a request to intervene in the Central Africa Republic, where an insurgency flared.

So this Mali operation underlines the seriousness France's concern over its former colony. French hostages have been taken in neighboring Niger by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Paris is trying to contain any further militant expansion in the heart of Africa.

Northern Mali has been occupied by radical Islamists, who moved in after fighting broke out in January 2012 between government forces and Tuareg rebels. West African states and international leaders, worried about an al Qaeda foothold, say a rapid military intervention is essential to solving the security crisis in Mali.

Hundreds of thousands of Malians have been uprooted because of proliferation of armed groups, drought and political instability after a coup d'etat in March.

Hollande said the country is in consulting with the United Nations and "intervening within the framework of international law." He said Parliament will be consulted on the operation as early as Monday.

"The terrorists must know that France will always be there whenever the rights of a country that strives for freedom and democracy are threatened, not just when its core interests are at stake," he said..

The U.N. Security Council on Friday cited "grave concern over the reported military movements and attacks by terrorist and extremist groups" in northern Mali.

"This serious deterioration of the situation threatens even more the stability and integrity of Mali and constitutes a direct threat to international peace and security," the council said Thursday night.

Last month, the council authorized a one-year military peacekeeping mission in Mali. The African-led International Support Mission in Mali aims to help rebuild the capacity of Mali's security and defense forces and to help Malian authorities recover the areas in the north.

A regional group, the Economic Community of West African States, already pledged thousands of troops to the mission, and the Security Council urged other member states to contribute troops.

The Malian government and rebel groups are expected to meet for peace talks in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, on January 21.

Mali held its first democratic elections in 1992 after decades of military rule.

It had a mostly strong democracy until last March, when a group of soldiers toppled the government, saying it had not provided adequate equipment for them to fight ethnic Tuareg rebels roaming the vast desert in the north.

The Tuareg rebels, who staged decades of rebellions in their desire for independence, took advantage of the power vacuum and seized parts of the north. The rebels were well armed; they had fought alongside Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and when he was killed in October 2011, they returned to Mali with weapons.

A power struggle then erupted in the north between the Tuaregs and local al Qaeda-linked radicals, who prevailed and seized control of large parts of the desert north. The international community voiced concerns about al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and expanding its presence in Mali.

The al Qaeda wing is linked to the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others last year, U.S. officials have said.

The militants in the north have already applied their strict interpretation of Sharia law by banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also publicly stoned a couple to death in July, reportedly for having an affair.

Public executions, amputations, floggings and other inhumane punishments are becoming common, the United Nations says.

At least four times this year, the militants have attacked Timbuktu's historic tombs and shrines, claiming

the relics are idolatrous. The picturesque city was once an important destination for Islamic scholars because of its ancient and prominent burial sites, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tuareg rebels retreated from the well-armed militants but have vowed to fight back and establish their own country in the north, which they call Azawad.

CNN's Saskya Vandoorne contributed to this report

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