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Updated Friday, January 18, 2013 at 04:55 PM

Aid groups warn they can't reach key Mali town

By BABA AHMED and KRISTA LARSON
Associated Press

Warning that civilians are in danger, aid officials said they cannot reach a town where Islamist militants and French forces battled for a week, and a town not far from the capital remained on high alert Friday after a reported jihadist sighting.

Doctors Without Borders has been trying to get to the town of Konna since Monday but all roads leading to the community in central Mali have been closed by the Malian military, said Malik Allaouna, director of operations for the group known as MSF by its initials in French.

"Despite our repeated requests, we are still being refused access to the Konna region," he said. "It is essential to allow the delivery of neutral and impartial medical and humanitarian aid in the areas affected by the conflict."

The fate of Konna was unclear Friday, more than a week after Islamists first advanced on the town in a move that prompted the French military to launch its offensive in this vast desert nation in northwest Africa.

A Malian military official said Thursday that the country's forces were in control of the town, but the claim could not be independently corroborated.

Further to the south, forces remained on high alert in Banamba, a town just 90 miles (144 kilometers) from the capital, Bamako, after a reported sighting of jihadists in the vicinity. Roughly 100 Malian soldiers sped Thursday to Banamba, which would be the closest the extremists reportedly have come to Bamako.

France has encountered fierce resistance from the extremist groups, whose tentacles extend not only over a territory the size of Afghanistan in Mali, but also another 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) to the northeast in Algeria, where fighters stormed a BP-operated plant and took dozens of foreigners hostages, including Americans. They demanded the immediate end of the hostilities in Mali, with one commander, Oumar Ould Hamaha, saying that they are now "globalizing the conflict" in revenge for the military assault on Malian soil.

A city official in Banamba who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said they had received reports that a rebel convoy had left the jihadist-controlled town of Diabaly on the road headed to Banamba.

On Thursday, France increased its troop strength in Mali to 1,400, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies with the majority of its 15.8 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed last March, following a coup in the capital which created the disarray that allowed Islamist extremists to take over the main cities in the distant north.

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Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.


HAROUNA TRAORE / AP
French soldiers conduct operations in the bush near Niono, in central Mali, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. Fighting raged in one Mali town, airstrikes hit another and army troops raced to protect a third, on Thursday, the seventh day of the French-led military intervention to wrest back Mali's north from al Qaida-linked groups.




HAROUNA TRAORE / AP
Malian soldiers check civilians waiting to cross a bridge in Markala, approximately 40 km outside Segou on the road to Dibaly, in central Mali, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013.




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