Catholic official says Mali relieved by French intervention

.- French military invention in Mali has “greatly comforted” the country's people who feared jihadist rebels could expand far into the country’s south, a Catholic Church official has said.

Father Edmond Dembele, secretary of the Episcopal Conference of Mali, told Fides news agency that Malians had “held their breath” for fear of the success of the rebels.

Now those in rebel occupied territory “look with hope” to the military operations. However, they worry about bombings and do not know what the reaction of the rebels will be when they leave cities like Konna, which they occupied on Jan. 10.

Fr. Dembele said Malians are now waiting for the land offensive.

French President Francois Hollande ordered an intervention in Mali Jan. 11 to counter rebel attempts to move into Mali’s south from the north. French warplanes began air strikes on rebel positions

French ground troops have aided the Mali army in armed combat against Islamist rebels, killing more than 100 militants. At least 11 Malian soldiers and a French helicopter pilot have also died, the BBC reports. There are about 800 French troops in Mali and their numbers will triple soon.

Another 3,300 troops from a regional West African force are expected to join the fight against the rebels. They include troops from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Togo have also promised troops.

This Saturday West African leaders will hold a summit to discuss the crisis. EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Thursday to discuss Mali.

Rebel forces reportedly pulled out of Gao and Timbuktu, which they occupied in the past year.

The rebel groups primarily adhere to a strict Wahhabi version of Islam. The majority of Malians are Muslim, but most of these belong to a form of Sufi Islam.

At least 140,000 refugees from Mali have registered in neighboring countries since April 2012 while an estimated 228,000 have been internally displaced, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says. The total population is about 15.4 million.

Fr. Dembele said that the Catholic Church in the area of Mopti, the largest regional capital closest to the fighting, is trying to help the displaced. The Mali bishops’ conference will hold a meeting next week to decide how to better coordinate Catholic relief efforts.

Both Islamists and more secular Tuareg fighters seized northern Mali in April 2012 after a military coup.

Many of the Tuareg fighters had fought under Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. After his fall in 2011, many returned to Mali and joined a rebellion against the Mali government. They were sidelined in Mali after Islamists took control of major towns.

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