African troops bound for Mali, as France strikes Islamists
BAMAKO, Mali - The first African troops were bound for Mali on Tuesday to shore up a five-day old French military offensive that has sent Islamist insurgents fleeing from their northern strongholds.
Defence sources said France plans to triple its force from a current 750 to a total of 2,500 troops, sign that Paris is preparing for a drawn-out campaign to stem the advance of Islamists who have held northern Mali since April.
But France and fellow UN Security Council members also want to speed up the deployment of a UN-mandated, 3,300-strong West African intervention force in the former French colony.
West African army chiefs began meeting Tuesday in Bamako to plan the roll-out, as Nigeria, which is leading the force, said the first of its troops would deploy to Mali within a day.
"We are here today to speak about the engagement alongside our Malian brothers in arms, to liberate the north of Mali," Ivory Coast army chief General Soumaila Bakayoko said as the talks opened.
In Abuja, defence spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerima told journalists a first Nigerian battalion will be deployed to Mali within 24 hours, and that Nigeria's total commitment will be 900 troops, 300 more than earlier announced.
Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged troops.
French President Francois Hollande, speaking from a French military base in Abu Dhabi, said however it will take at least another week before the African force is deployed in full. And experts have warned it could take months before the troops are operational.
Since the French offensive was launched, the Islamists have fled three key towns under their control: Timbuktu, where residents have suffered some of the worst abuses of the past 10 months, as well as Gao, also in the north, and Douentza in Mali's centre.
Driven from their strongholds by French Rafale jets, the Islamists struck back Monday in the government-held south, capturing the small town of Diabaly some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Bamako.
French planes hit Diabaly overnight, according to a security source who told AFP at least five Islamists were killed and many injured. A resident of a town some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Diabaly told AFP he had seen armed Islamists fleeing after the strikes.
Hollande said Tuesday the latest strikes had "achieved their goal". He defended the French intervention, saying it had prevented Mali from being overrun by "terrorists".
The 15-nation UN Security Council on Monday expressed its unanimous support for the French offensive.
But the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, of which Mali is a member, called Tuesday for an "immediate ceasefire, dubbing the offensive "premature" and urging all parties to return to negotiations.
So far the unrest has caused nearly 150,000 people to flee the country, while another 230,000 are internally displaced, the UN humanitarian agency said Tuesday.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has registered 54,100 refugees in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, 38,800 in Burkina Faso and 1,500 in Algeria, OCHA said.
The hold by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists on vast swathes of Mali's northern desert had sparked fear in the international community that the zone could become an Afghan-style breeding ground for terrorists.
Scores of French armoured tanks from a base in Abidjan arrived in Bamako overnight along with extra troops, a spokesman for the French forces told AFP.
Belgium has said it will contribute two C-130 transport planes and a medivac helicopter to the offensive, while Britain and Canada have offered troop transporters and the United States has pledged to share intelligence and provide logistical support.
Hollande met Tuesday in Abu Dhabi with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who raised the possibility of participating in operation "Serval" if asked, according to Hollande's entourage.
The French president also intimated that Chad and the UAE could participate.
While France has made quick gains in eastern Mali, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said the situation is more difficult in the west where the rebels are better armed.
A spokesman for the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) rebel group, Senda Ould Boumama, said their withdrawal from northern cities was a "tactical retreat" to reduce civilian casualties, in comments published on Mauritanian news website Alakhbar.
A leader of the allied Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) also vowed revenge, warning: "France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France."
Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents have condemned France's intervention, warning of "disastrous" consequences. -Rappler.com