BAMAKO: The first troops from a regional West African force were bound for Mali on Tuesday to shore up a five-day old French military offensive that has uprooted insurgents from several key 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 fighters who have held northern Mali since April.
And West African army chiefs met Tuesday in Bamako to plan the roll-out of a UN-mandated, 3,300-strong West African intervention force in the former French colony.
“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 at the talks.
Nigeria, which is leading the force, said the first of its troops would deploy to Mali within 24 hours.
Defence spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerima said 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.
Since France launched its offensive, the militants have fled key strongholds under their control as Rafale fighter jets blasted the areas of Gao and Kidal in the north, and Douentza in Mali’s centre.
Residents also reported the fighters had fled Timbuktu, which has not been targeted by the French strikes.
The fabled city has seen some of the worst abuses by the insurgents in their brutal implementation of sharia law, including the destruction of ancient mausolea.
On Tuesday cultural agency UNESCO urged Malian and French forces fighting in Mali to protect ancient cultural sites during air raids and ground attacks.
Analysts have said the retreat 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 expert Alaya Allani.
Although driven from their strongholds, the rebels struck back Monday in the government-held south, capturing the small town of Diabaly some 400 kilometres north of Bamako.
French planes hit Diabaly overnight, according to a security source who told AFP at least five militants were killed and many injured. A resident of a town some 20 kilometres from Diabaly told AFP he had seen armed fighters fleeing after the strikes.
French President Francois Hollande, speaking from a French military base in Abu Dhabi, 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 sent 144,500 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, while another 230,000 are internally displaced, the UN humanitarian agency said Tuesday.
The fighting has also left at least 11 Malian soldiers dead and one French helicopter pilot.
The hold by al Qaeda-linked fighters on vast swathes of Mali’s northern desert has fuelled fears the zone – a hostile, semi-arid region more than double the size of France – 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, while Britain and Canada have offered troop transporters.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed Tuesday that Washington – which has pledged intelligence and logistical support -stands ready to support France’s military assault, but without putting any US troops on the ground.
And EU diplomats said European Union foreign ministers would meet Thursday to speed up the dispatch of a mission to train Mali’s army and discuss how best to back up the African force.
Hollande met Tuesday 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 take part.
At home France has deployed 700 troops in and around Paris, indicating mounting concern over potential reprisal attacks.
Leaders of the militant groups under attack have warned France has “opened the doors of hell” by unleashing its warplanes and have called on fellow extremists to hit back on French soil.
Afghanistan’s Taliban have joined in condemning France’s intervention, warning of “disastrous” consequences.
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