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France plans to add to its 750 troops now in Mali until an African-led force is in place to help Mali’s army battle the Islamist militants who control the country’s north.
President Francois Hollande said Tuesday it could take a week for the West African troops to deploy. He also said French jets carried out another round of air strikes overnight against the rebels, who are pushing into new areas to the south.
Sonny Ugoh, communications director for the Economic Community of West African States, says that some of the 3,000 troops authorized by the United Nations Security Council last month will arrive as early as Tuesday.
Initially, those forces had not been expected before September, but Ugoh says ECOWAS members have expressed a need for urgency after militants pressed an offensive that included capturing the town of Diabaly on Monday.
“They have said member countries should deploy immediately in order to support Mali to defend its territorial integrity, defend the capital from this onslaught and secure the country,” he said. “I think they have acted as responsibly as the situation requires.”
French United Nations Ambassador Gerard Araud said Monday that a Nigerian general who will lead the African force is already in the Malian capital, Bamako. The neighboring countries of Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal also promise to send troops.
France deployed forces in Mali on Friday. Araud says the government decided to offer military help because it was worried the rebels could possibly take the capital.
“Our assessment was that they were totally able to take Bamako. And so, we decided that what was at stake was the existence of the state of Mali, and beyond Mali was the stability of all of West Africa,” said Araud. “With determination, but also with reluctance, we decided that we had no other choice but to launch this military intervention and we’ll conduct it as long as necessary.”
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says the rebels captured Diabaly, about 400 kilometers north of Bamako, after fierce fighting with the Malian army.
But he says the French military operation in Mali is working, as President Hollande had planned.
“The situation is working out in the way that he [Hollande] anticipated and it is evolving favorably. To the east of Mali, the initiative of the terrorist groups has been blocke,” he said. “The city of Konna has been abandoned [by the rebels] and the terrorist groups have pulled back to Douentza.”
VOA correspondent Anne Look is in Bamako and reports the Malian army is sending troops to Diabaly in an effort to beat back the militants, who are described as well-armed.
“The Malian military source in Koulikoro camp, which is about 60 kilometers outside of Bamako, has told me they are sending reinforcements,” Keep in mind it might take a little while for them to get there,” said Look. “So as of right now, we are hearing that fighting in Diabaly has stopped and that the Islamists control the town, but it does not appear that the battle is completely over.”
The United States said Monday that it is preparing to offer logistical support to France. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the United States is already providing intelligence gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles operating in the region. He says Washington is also considering providing limited logistical support and some airlift capability.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Monday welcomes the French-led military intervention, saying he hopes the action will help to stop the rebels’ offensive.
Also Monday, the militant group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa joined Islamic Ansar Dine militants in threatening France with reprisals for its role in Mali. President Hollande has increased security across France.
Al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists seized control of northern Mali soon after renegade soldiers toppled the government in March, leaving a temporary power vacuum. The militants have imposed harsh conservative Islamic law across the north.
Mali is a former French colony and France still has a variety of economic and political interests there.
Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore has declared a state of emergency and has called on every Malian to help in the war effort.