French warplanes have bombed Islamist rebel strongholds in northern Mali, as UN-approved west African troops prepare to join the operation.

Fighter jets have pounded Timbuktu and Gao in Northern Mali, the region that was captured by al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists in April 2012.

France became directly involved in the conflict after saying that the spread of the al-Qaeda-linked groups in northern Mali posed a security threat to Europe. As well as its fighter jets based in France and Chad, some 550 French troops are currently in the towns of Bamako and Mopti.

France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius has insisted that without direct intervention the Islamist could have advanced as far as the capital Bamako, and that the military would only be operating in the country for "a matter of weeks".

So far more than 100 militant had been killed, and since the start of the French intervention on Friday, at least 11 Malian soldiers and a French helicopter pilot have died.

African nations Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin are all sending in troops in a bid to win back the north. The UK is providing two C17 transport planes towards the French effort.

Written and presented by Alfred Joyner