ABIDJAN: West African leaders Saturday called for greater international involvement in Mali as they met to speed up the deployment of regional troops to boost a French-backed offensive to halt an Islamist onslaught.
The emergency summit in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan was also attended by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius who clearly said it was time for the Africans to take over and "as soon as possible", adding that this was "the aim of our meeting."
"France was obliged to intervene very, very rapidly, otherwise there would have been no more Mali," Fabius said on his arrival in Abidjan. "But it is well understood that it is the Africans that must pick up the baton."
France said Saturday it had 2,000 of the 2,500 troops it had pledged on the ground in Mali, amid fears that the vast arid north which the rebels control could become a haven for Islamist militants and threaten security both in the region and overseas.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who is also current head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc, said it was high time other countries did their bit in Mali.
"The hour has come for a broader commitment by the major powers and more countries and organisations to the military operations to show greater solidarity with France and Africa in the total and multi-faceted war against terrorism in Mali," said Quattara at the start of the meeting.
Malian soldiers, backed by French troops and air power, retook the key central town of Konna on Thursday from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who had swooped down more than a week ago from their northern stronghold and threatened the capital Bamako .
There were conflicting reports on another town Diabaly, which the Malian army claimed was recaptured but this was effectively denied by the French defence ministry.
On Saturday Malian troops said they were poised to enter Diabaly, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Bamako.
"The enemy has fled and we are ready to enter," Colonel Kaba Sangare told AFP. "We are simply awaiting orders."
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hailed the French role and expressed the support of Washington, which has offered to send transport planes and share intelligence.
"We will continue to work with countries in that region and we will try to continue to assist France in the efforts they have conducted," Panetta told BBC in an interview.
"We commend France for taking the step to try to block the AQIM and we will try to assist them as do other countries in that effort," he said, referring to the group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
ECOWAS has vowed to boost the French effort with a total of about 5,800 troops, but only about 100 soldiers have actually reached Mali.
Oil-rich Chad, whose battle-hardened troops are experienced in fending off rebel attacks on their territory and have been deployed in neighbouring countries such as the Central African Republic, has promised 2,000 troops.
Regional powerhouse Nigeria subsequently promised to boost its troop allotment for Mali from a planned 900 to 1,200 soldiers.
The African deployment follows a United Nations resolution. It was originally envisaged that Western powers including France would provide logistical support to an African-led force but it is now clear that French troops will be at the frontline of operations.
The French presence has been a lifesaver for Mali's ill-equipped and demoralised soldiers, struggling to fight an amalgam of Islamist and Tuareg rebel groups.
"When the first French troops arrived, everything changed," Captain Cheichne Konate told AFP, adding: "Without them it would be over for us."