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Explainer: What is happening in Mali?

It is almost three weeks since French and Malian troops began a battle to wrest back the north of the country from Islamist rebels.

Malian soldiers man a checkpoint outside Sevare on Sunday
Malian soldiers man a checkpoint outside Sevare on Sunday
Image: AP Photo/Jerome Delay

IT IS ALMOST three weeks since France first intervened in an intense military battle over Islamist control of parts of Mali.

French and Malian troops have seized six towns since they launched their offensive on 11 January, trying to win back the huge northern part of the country which has been controlled by rebels since April 2012.

The former French colony, which gained its independence in June 1960, asked France for help on 10 January after the Islamists captured a key town and warned that they planned to push further south towards the capital in a bid to gain control of more of the vast, landlocked country.

Here’s a timeline of what’s happened since then:

January 10:

- Islamists capture the government-held central town of Konna and say they will push farther south. Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore asks France for help.

- Witnesses say foreign troops and weapons have begun arriving by transport plane at an army base in Sevare, just 70 kilometres south of Konna.

January 11:

- With French support, Malian government troops launch an offensive against Islamist rebels.

- French President Francois Hollande confirms French troops are actively supporting the offensive.

January 12:

- French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announces the death of a French helicopter pilot.

French soldiers sing the national anthem at a military base in southern France before their deployment to Mali (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

January 13:

- French airstrikes target Islamist bases in the northern regions of Gao and Kidal, killing more than 60 rebels.

- Hollande says the intervention has stopped a southward rebel advance seen as threatening the capital Bamako. Algeria has authorised French warplanes to use its airspace for bombing raids on Mali, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says.

January 14:

- Rebels abandon key northern bases. Residents in the towns of Gao, Douentza and Timbuktu report all Islamists have fled, though a rebel spokesman calls it a “tactical retreat.” However, Islamists seize the town of Diabaly in government-held territory, 400 kilometres north of the capital. They vow to “strike at the heart of France.”

- Ethnic-Tuareg separatists say they are ready to support France by taking on Islamist rebels on the ground.

January 15

- France engages for the first time ground troops to retake Diabaly. Hundreds of soldiers from France and Mali head to the town, which witnesses say is bombarded by French fighter planes. Le Drian says the Malian army has not regained control of Konna, after the Malian army announced on January 12 that they had taken the town.

- Speaking in Dubai, Hollande says the French intervention has three objectives — “ending terrorists attacks,” as well as “securing Bamako where we have thousands of citizens and help Mali to restore its territorial integrity.”

- Some 2,500 French troops are to be deployed for Operation Serval.

A Malian soldier gestures at journalists to leave the area of a French air strike (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

January 16

- French troops battle rebels in Diabaly. Le Drian says the western zone where Diabaly lies is home to “the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups.”

- Islamist fighters claim to have taken 41 foreigners hostage in a retaliatory attack in neighbouring Algeria.

January 17

- French warplanes continue to pound Islamist militant targets in Mali around Diabaly. West African forces arrive in Mali to help the French-led intervention.

- Confusion abounds over the fate of the hostages being held in the gas field compound in Algeria

January 18

- French troops seize Konna, a key city in the central region of Mali, from the rebels.

- Hundreds of hostages are freed by militants holding them at the Algerian gas facility but many remain unaccounted for.

January 21

- Algeria says at least 37 foreigners were killed in the hostage situation at the gas compound.

- The French and Mali troops take control of Diabaly as Islamists flee after sustained French air strikes.

January 25

- There is a split among the rebels as Ansar Dine, which helped to seize control of parts of the north of the country, says it has broken away from its al Qaeda allies and wants a truce.

January 27

- The French-led troops seize the eastern town of Gao, another rebel stronghold and the biggest of the six towns seized by troops since the offensive began, after fighting on Saturday.

- Around 20 air strikes are carried out by French warplanes.  France confirms it has deployed 2,900 troops.

January 28

- French and Malian troops surround the fabled city of Timbuktu in a lighting advance against the rebels.

Additional reporting by Christine Bohan

- © AFP, 2013

Read: French-led troops surround fabled Timbuktu >

Read: Mali conflict: Islamists offer hostage talks amid French offensive >

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