Francois Hollande pledges further support for Mali

Tuesday 15 January 2013 23.28
French soldiers sit aboard a Malian military armed car
French soldiers sit aboard a Malian military armed car

France has pledged to keep troops in Mali until stability returned to the West African country, raising the spectre of a long campaign against al Qaeda-linked rebels who held their ground despite a fifth day of air strikes.

Paris has poured hundreds of soldiers into Mali and carried out 50 bombing raids since Friday in the Islamist-controlled northern half of the country.

Western and regional states fear the country could become a base for terrorist attacks in Africa and Europe.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that, despite French air support, Malian forces had not been able to dislodge Islamist fighters from the central Malian towns of Konna or Diabaly, just 350km northeast of Bamako.

A column of French armoured vehicles has rolled northward from the dusty riverside capital of Bamako towards rebel lines, the first major northward deployment of ground troops. A military official declined to comment on their objective.

Thousands of African soldiers are due to take over the offensive.

Regional armies are scrambling to accelerate an operation which was initially not expected until September and has been brought forward by France's surprise bombing campaign aimed at stopping a rebel advance on a strategic town last week.

President Francois Hollande, on a visit to the United Arab Emirates during which he sought Gulf states' financial backing for the African-led mission, suggested France would retain a major role in its former colony for months to come.

"We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory," Mr Hollande told a news conference.

Paris has said it plans to deploy 2,500 soldiers to bolster the Malian army and work with the intervention force provided by West African states.

West African defence chiefs met in Bamako to approve plans for the swift deployment of 3,300 regional troops, foreseen in a United Nations-backed intervention plan. After failing to reach a final agreement, they adjourned their talks until tomorrow.

Nigeria pledged to deploy soldiers within 24 hours, and Belgium said it was sending transport planes and helicopters to help, but West Africa's armies need time to become operational.

Mali's north, a vast and inhospitable area of desert and rugged mountains the size of Texas, was seized last year by an Islamist alliance combining al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM with splinter group MUJWA and the home-grown Ansar Dine rebels.

Any delay in following up on the French air bombardments of Islamist bases and fuel depots with a ground offensive could allow the insurgents to slip away into the desert and mountains, regroup and counter-attack.

The rebels, who French officials say are mobile and well armed, have shown they can hit back, dislodging government forces from Diabaly yesterday.

Residents said the town was still under Islamist control despite a number of air strikes that shook houses.

An eye witness near Segou, to the south, told Reuters he had seen 20 French Special Forces soldiers driving toward Diabaly.

In Konna, whose seizure on Thursday sparked French involvement, residents said Islamist fighters were camped just outside town. Army troops had also withdrawn after entering the town on Saturday.

Malians have largely welcomed the French intervention, having seen their army suffer a series of defeats by the rebels.

France, which has repeatedly said it has abandoned its role as policeman of its former African colonies, said on that the US, Canada, Denmark and Germany had also offered logistical support.

Fabius has said Gulf Arab states would help the Mali campaign, while Belgium said it would send two C130 transport planes and two medical helicopters following a request from Paris.

A meeting of donors for the operation was expected to be held in Addis Ababa at the end of January.

Security experts have warned that the multinational intervention in Mali, couched in terms of a campaign by governments against "terrorism", could provoke a jihadist backlash against France and the West, and African allies.

US officials have warned of links between AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Shabaab Islamic militants fighting in Somalia.

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