BAMAKO, January 16, 2013 (AFP)
BAMAKO, January 16, 2013 (AFP)
French soldiers drove out for their first ground offensive against Islamic insurgents in Mali, with Nigerian troops for the multinational African intervention force expected to arrive Wednesday.
Witnesses said hundreds of Malian and French troops in armoured vehicles were headed to Diabaly, a town 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital that was seized by the rebels on Monday. Another convoy was seen leaving Bamako in a northerly direction.
A security source announced plans to “take back Diabaly with the French”.
French fighter jets have launched strikes on Diabaly, but a regional security source said the insurgents were still there.
France’s deployment of ground forces came as defence sources said the country would triple its force in Mali to 2,500.
Speaking in Dubai, President Francois Hollande said French troops were not in Mali for good but would stay until security had been restored and the “terrorists” eliminated.
West African army chiefs meanwhile met in Bamako to plan the roll-out of the UN-mandated, 3,300-strong regional intervention force in the former French colony. One participant told AFP their talks would resume Wednesday.
Nigeria, which is leading the regional force, said its total commitment would be 900 troops: 300 more than previously announced.
A first contingent would have been deployed by Wednesday, said Nigerian defence spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerima. Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged troops.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian conceded that the Malian forces around Diabaly were struggling.
But he added: “Our presence has strengthened them.”
Le Drian also confirmed reports that the insurgents were still present in the central town of Konna, despite claims from Malian officers late Saturday that they had recaptured it.
It was the fall of this town and a threat from Islamist fighters that they would move on south to the capital that prompted France to intervene last week.
“We are up against a determined adversary that is well-equipped and has not given up, but we have hit them hard with our strikes, including those deep in their territory,” he said.
The Islamists took over the vast desert territories of northern Mali last April, exploiting the power vaccuum created by a military coup the previous month.
Since France launched its air offensive, they have fled the key northern towns that had become their strongholds and where they had imposed their brutal version of Islamic law.
But analysts have warned that their withdrawal was likely a tactical move.
“The jihadists are in it for the long-haul. They are comfortable in this situation: the vast desert, a difficult terrain, a precarious security situation,” said Tunisian Islamist expert Alaya Allani.
One resident in the northern town of Gao reported that the Islamists had cut telecommunication links late Tuesday, rendering land lines and mobile phones useless.
“They accuse residents of giving information to the soldiers,” he told AFP by satellite phone.
According to France’s UN ambassador, the 15-nation UN Security Council expressed its unanimous support for the French offensive on Monday.
But the UN and aid agencies have also expressed fears for the civilians caught up in the conflict.
So far the unrest has sent 144,500 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, the UN humanitarian agency said Tuesday. Another 230,000 people were internally displaced, it added.
French diplomats and aid agencies plan to meet in Paris and Bamako this week to address the challenge.
The hold Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have on vast swathes of northern Mali has fuelled fears that the zone — a hostile, semi-arid region more than twice the size of France — could become a haven and training ground for terrorists.
Belgium offered two C-130 transport planes and two helicopters to back up France’s offensive, while Britain and Canada have offered troop transporters.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany was considering logistical or humanitarian support.
European Union diplomats said EU foreign ministers would meet Thursday to expedite the dispatch of a mission to train Mali’s army.
Hollande met Tuesday with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who raised the possibility of participating in the Mali operation, according to the French president’s entourage.
Hollande also intimated that Chad and the United Arab Emirates could take part. However, Qatar and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, of which Mali is a member, have urged dialogue instead of military intervention.
At home, France has deployed 700 troops in and around Paris, indicating mounting concern over potential reprisal attacks.
Mali’s militant Islamists have warned France has “opened the doors of hell” by unleashing its warplanes and called on fellow extremists to hit back on French soil.
Afghanistan’s Taliban have joined in condemning France’s intervention, warning of “disastrous” consequences.
Hollande’s bold moves have nevertheless earned him respect at home, where 75 percent of French people support the offensive, according to a poll for newspaper Le Parisien.