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France bombs rebel strongholds in northern Mali

According to military sources and witnesses, more than 100 people, including rebels and government soldiers, were killed during an air assault by French forces. MSNBC's Thomas Roberts reports.

French fighter jets pounded an Islamist rebel stronghold in northern Mali Sunday as Paris poured more troops into the capital Bamako.

France is determined to end Islamist domination of north Mali, which many fear could act as a base for attacks on the West and for links with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

The attack on Gao, the largest city in the desert region controlled by the Islamist alliance, marked a decisive intensification on the third day of French air raids, striking at the heart of the vast territory seized by rebels in April. The rebels have occupied the northern two-thirds of the poor West African country.

Upward of 200 rebels have reportedly died in the firefight. Malian authorities said 11 soldiers were killed during a battle in Konna, and about 60 others were wounded.

Nicolas Vissac / ECPAD via AFP - Getty Images

A handout photo released by the French Army shows a French military preparing a Mirage 2000D fighter plane at the French military base of N'Djamena, Chad.

France has deployed about 550 soldiers to Mali for “Operation Serval” – named for an African wildcat. France is leaning on African nations to also contribute troops for an operation that the United Nations has stressed should be “African-led, African-owned.”

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara immediately pledged 3,300 African soldiers. Former French colonies Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso have all pledged to deploy 500 troops within days.

Algeria, which shares a northern border with Mali, has allowed France to make full use of its airspace, said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Fabius said he was grateful for Algeria’s support given that the country’s leadership have pushed for a political solution over a military intervention, worried that al-Qaida militants and refugees would be pushed into southern Algeria.

The United States is considering sending a small number of unarmed surveillance drones to Mali as well as providing logistics support, a U.S. official told Reuters. Britain and Canada have also promised logistical support.

As fighting took place in the north, Bamaka was calm, with the sun streaking through the dust enveloping the city. Some cars drove with French flags draped from the windows to celebrate the French intervention.

Hundreds of Malians lined up to donate blood destined for their troops locked in a fierce battle against Islamist rebels occupying the northern two-thirds of the poor West African country.

The road ahead could be hugely expensive and last months, not weeks, warned Reuben Brigety, one of the U.S. State Department’s leading officials for Africa.

"A massive, massive undertaking," he said when he spoke at London’s Chatham House in late October. "That is incredibly difficult terrain; it's a vast expanse. It will take a long time to take and hold."

-- Reporting by Reuters' reporters Bate Felix, Chine Labbe, John Irish, William Maclean, Catherine Bremer, Lamine Chikhi, Adama Diarra, Tiemoko Diallo, Rainer Schwenzfeier, Joe Bavier, Leila Aboud, Phil Stewart.