French intervention in Mali
Yacouba Konate wears a French flag to show his support for the French military intervention in Mali in the Malian capital of Bamako - Reuters

French war planes have begun bombarding Islamist strongholds in northern Mali in a bid to evict the rebels from the region, 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. Some sources claim the bombardment has already decimated the rebel forces.

An official in the Malian capital Bamako told the Guardian on condition of anonymity: "Mali is now at the mercy of the French army. They are bombing the north, they have killed many terrorists.

"The Islamists have been running into the desert - they have deserted Gao and Timbuktu."

Although bombing has been particularly severe in Gao, it is reported that local residents, who are forced to live under strict Islamic Sharia law by the occupying rebels, are backing the French offensive.

One resident, Soumaila Maiga, told Reuters: "The planes are so fast you can only hear their sound in the sky. We are happy, even though it is frightening. Soon we will be delivered."

Another onlooker, Mariam Sidibe, said: "We thank France for coming to our aid. We hope it continues till the north is free."

The bombardment of the rebels' northern strongholds follows soon after a French airstrike helped the Malian army recapture the town of Konna, which had been taken by the Islamists just days before.

Like many other western powers and African countries, France fears that northern Mali could become a dangerous base for international terrorist attacks if the Islamist rebels consolidate their hold on the region.

"The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe," defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French television.

France has called for a UN Security Council meeting on 14 January to decide on further action. Although the swift intervention by France has been hailed by western nations, it has also put French citizens in volatile regions at risk.

Meanwhile, the West African bloc Ecowas is taking steps to deploy African troops in the troubled region, a move which has already been approved by the UN.