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French ground troops ready to battle Islamists in Mali

French army soldiers stand on armoured vehicles as they leave Bamako and start their deployment to the north of Mali as part of the "Serval" operations on January 15, 2013 . (AFP PHOTO /ISSOUF SANOGO)

BAMAKO/MADRID: French ground forces prepared to engage in Mali for the first time Tuesday to drive Islamists out of the town of Diabaly, which they seized a day earlier, while the first batch of regional troops headed to join the offensive.

As witnesses reported hundreds of Malian and French troops in armored vehicles headed to Diabaly, 400 kilometers north of the capital, another convoy was seen leaving Bamako in a northern direction.

French fighter jets launched airstrikes on Diabaly Monday night, but a regional security source said the insurgents were still in the zone, and some had taken a local government official and his family hostage.

The engagement of ground forces on the fifth day of an offensive waged up to now with fighter jets came as French defense sources said the country would triple its force in the country to a total of 2,500 troops.

Speaking in Dubai, French President Francois Hollande said his government did not intend to keep forces in Mali, but would until security was restored and “terrorists” eliminated.

West African army chiefs meanwhile met Tuesday in Bamako to plan the rollout of a U.N.-mandated, 3,300-strong regional intervention force in the former French colony.

Nigeria, which is leading the force, said the first of its troops would deploy to Mali within 24 hours.

Defense spokesman Colonel Mohammad Yerima said Nigeria’s total commitment will be 900 troops, 300 more than earlier announced.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Islamists were putting up tough resistance.

“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,” Le Drian said.

He added the jihadists remained in control of the town of Konna, whose capture prompted the French to intervene and drive the rebels back after they threatened to advance on the capital.

The Malians earlier reported they had “total control” of the town. He admitted the Malian forces around Diabaly were struggling in combat.

The 15-nation U.N. Security Council Monday expressed its unanimous support for the French offensive. Washington also welcomed the action, but without putting any U.S. troops on the ground. “It’s absolutely critical to stop the offensive of terrorist groups toward southern Mali,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. was determined to prevent the North African armed jihadist group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb setting up a base in Mali and was discussing with France how it could support its efforts.

“With regards to the nature of the assistance that we would provide, we are in discussions with the French,” he said in Madrid after meeting Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes.

Belgium offered two C-130 transport planes and two helicopters to back up France’s offensive, while Britain and Canada have offered troop transporters.

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 Mohammad Ould Abdel Aziz, who raised the possibility of participating in “Operation Serval” – named after a small African cat – according to Hollande’s entourage.

The French president also intimated that Chad and the United Arab Emirates could take part.

At home, France has deployed 700 troops in and around Paris, indicating mounting concern over potential reprisal attacks.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2013, on page 1.

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