France adding more troops, warplanes in Mali

LONDON — The Globe and Mail

French soldiers walk past a hangar they are staying at the Malian army air base in Bamako Jan. 14, 2013. France plans to increase its troops in Mali to 2,500 in the days ahead and is working to speed up the deployment of West African troops for a campaign against Islamist rebels, the government said on Monday. (JOE PENNEY/REUTERS)

France has added more troops to its military mission in Mali and plans to send additional fighter jets to combat rebels backed by al-Qaeda, French President François Hollande indicated Tuesday.

“We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air,” Mr. Hollande told reporters at a French military base in Abu Dhabi. “We have 750 troops deployed at the moment and that will keep increasing so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans.” Mr. Hollande added that the mission will take “at least a week.”

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France's defence ministry says the country will "gradually deploy" 2,500 troops to Mali.

The increased military involvement comes as NATO said it backs France’s actions but has no plans to join the effort.

“France has taken swift action to roll back the offensive by the terrorist groups in Mali and we are hopeful that such efforts will help restore the rule of law in Mali and also reduce the threats posed by terrorist organizations,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “The Alliance as such is not involved in this crisis. But of course the situation in Mali is of grave concern to all of us because it threatens the security and stability of the country, the region and beyond.”

She added that: “There has been no request to NATO and no discussion within NATO on this crisis.”

French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists who seized the area, including its strategic military camp.

French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected. Despite France’s five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly on Monday, putting them roughly 400 kilometres from Mali’s capital, Bamako. When the air raids began last week, the closest known point they occupied was 680 kilometres from the capital.

“They bombed Diabaly. They bombed the town all night long. I am hiding inside a house,” said Ibrahim Toure, who irons clothes for a living and happened to be passing through Diabaly on his way to visit relatives, getting caught when the Islamists encircled the town. “It only stopped this morning at around 6 a.m.”

Diabaly represents an especially symbolic victory for the Islamists. It was in the military camp inside the town that 16 Muslim preachers from the fundamentalist Islamic sect, the Dawa which originated in India, were massacred by Malian government forces four months ago. The group of bearded men were unarmed, and were heading to a religious conference in the capital. Many of the leaders of the extremist groups occupying northern Mali began their path to jihad by adhering to the Dawa interpretation of Islam, which calls on the faithful to act as missionaries.

A convoy of 40 to 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast as France prepares for a possible land assault. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighbouring Mali are also expected to begin arriving in coming days.

Several other European countries, and Canada, have lined up with France although few are providing much in the way of military assistance. All of Europe “has a common interest in Mali not becoming a safe haven and a stronghold for terrorists on Europe’s doorstep,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Berlin. Germany won’t be sending troops, but it is considering how to help the French through other means such as logistics or medical support.

The European Union has also welcomed France’s intervention and plans to speed up a training program for African troops. However, the EU will not take on a combat role.

Britain is sending transport planes and is considering other action. “The ferocity and fanaticism of the extremists in northern Mali must be not be allowed to sweep unchecked into the country’s capital,” Mark Simmonds, Minister for Africa, told the House of Commons Monday. “France, which has an historic relationship with Mali, is quite rightly in the lead.”

France took action in Mali last week after rebel fighters moved from their northern stronghold and took control of cities closer to the capital Bamako. Mali is a former French colony and France has a long history of involvement in the region.

France will end its intervention in Mali and pull its forces out once the West African country has returned to being stable and safe with a solid political system, Mr. Hollande said Tuesday.

“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 during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

However, Mr. Hollande had been hoping that a force made up of African soldiers from neighbouring countries would take the lead in any military action against the rebels. That force, totalling roughly 3,300, has been promised but is taking much longer to organize. Mr. Hollande has said French soldiers will remain in place until the force is ready to take over.

With reports from The Associated Press and Reuters