French Mirage fighter jets on Sunday (January 13th) pounded Mali for a third straight day to stop columns of armed extremists from driving south to Bamako.
A top lieutenant of Ansar Al-Din chief Iyad Ag Ghaly was reportedly killed Sunday in fighting to recapture Konna from the radical Islamist group and its al-Qaeda allies.
Human Rights Watch said at least 10 civilians, including three children, had died in the town, located 700km from Bamako.
Eleven Malian soldiers were killed in the fighting, Interim President Dioncounda Traore said last night.
"They fell on the field of honour at Konna," he said.
A French pilot carrying out air raids also died, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Ansar al-Din reportedly suffered heavy losses. A Malian officer in the central town of Mopti, near the front line, said as many as 100 Islamists had been killed in Konna. Residents there described the bodies of men wearing Arab clothing and turbans.
The first French ground forces arrived Saturday from bases in Ivory Coast and Chad. The contingent would be at full strength by Monday, its commander told Mali's ORTM television.
The French intervention appeared to galvanise plans for the UN-approved African intervention force in Mali, which only a few days ago had not been expected to deploy until September.
Troops promised by African nations were expected to arrive in Mali on Sunday to join the campaign. Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Senegal on Saturday each committed a battalion (500 troops) for an African-led intervention force. Bénin on Sunday also pledged 300 soldiers.
Military commanders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are expected in Bamako on Sunday. "We are not letting up the pressure," Cote d'Ivoire's African Integration Minister Ally Coulibaly said. "It is the reconquest of north Mali that has just begun."
Ivory Coast currently holds the rotating presidency of the 15-nation West African bloc, which late Friday cleared the immediate deployment of troops for the force.
The office of British Prime Minister David Cameron told AFP it was sending two military transport planes to Mali to help transport foreign troops and equipment.