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France pushes back Mali rebels with airstrikes

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Sanda Abou Mohamed, spokesman for Islamist group Ansar Dine, told The Associated Press he could not confirm if his fighters were still in Konna. "I cannot tell you if our fighters are still in the city of Konna or if they are not, because since yesterday afternoon I have not had contact with them as the telephone network has been down in this zone," Mohamed said Saturday.

In a statement released Saturday, ECOWAS commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said the bloc had authorized the immediate deployment of troops to Mali. He said they made the decision "in light of the urgency of the situation."

ECOWAS did not say how many troops would be sent to Mali or when they would arrive. It also did not specify which countries from the 15-nation bloc would be providing the forces.

ECOWAS has been talking for months about a military operation to oust the Islamists from northern Mali. While the U.N. approved a plan for deployment, it had not been expected until September.

Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam.

In recent months, however, the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.

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