Mali conflict: France to increase troop numbers

President Francois Hollande: "We carried out more successful strikes and achieved our objectives"

President Francois Hollande says more French troops are to be deployed in Mali to support the 750 in the country countering an Islamist insurgency.

Mr Hollande said new air strikes overnight had "achieved their goal". One target was the town of Diabaly, which rebels entered on Monday.

West African military chiefs are meeting in Mali to discuss how an alliance with the French will work.

France began its intervention on Friday to halt the Islamists' advance south.

Late on Monday, the UN Security Council unanimously backed the intervention.

'Really scared'

Mr Hollande, on a visit to the French regional military base known as Peace Camp in Abu Dhabi, said: "For now, we have 750 men and the number will increase. New strikes overnight achieved their goal."

Analysis

France's wider goal in this campaign is unclear. Is this a mission to push back and contain the Islamist forces? Or is its aim that the government in Bamako expand its control into the vast north of the country?

That is a huge task in military terms, leaving aside the very real political problems which in many ways precipitated this crisis in the first place.

France speaks of handing over the mission to African forces as soon as possible. But how effective will the multinational West African force be?

And what about the Malian army itself? It has suffered severe reverses. It has lost quantities of equipment. It needs to be reformed and retrained. Key EU countries are willing to undertake this task - but again, it will take time.

The African troops may well require French air power and logistical support for the foreseeable future. And for the moment, it is largely French forces that must hold the line.

France to boost troops in Mali

He said that assembling an African military force to work with the French troops could take a "good week".

Mr Hollande told RFI radio: "We are confident about the speed with which we will be able to stop the aggressors, the enemy, these terrorists."

The French contingent is expected to rise to 2,500 in the coming weeks.

Witnesses in Diabaly, 400km (250 miles) north-east of Mali's capital, Bamako, said there had been major air strikes overnight to try to dislodge Islamists who had taken the town from Malian forces on Monday.

However, Mr Hollande said the Islamists had not captured it, but were merely hiding there "to protect themselves", adding: "They will be chased out."

One visitor, Ibrahim Toure, told the Associated Press (AP) news agency: "They bombed the town all night long. I am hiding inside a house. It only stopped at around 06:00."France to boost troops in Mali

One Malian security source told Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency that "at least five Islamists were killed and many injured".

Some 30 French tanks and armoured troop transport vehicles also crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast on Monday with a helicopter escort, witnesses said.

The BBC's Mark Doyle in Bamako says the French want ground reinforcements from West African allies as soon as possible.

Foreign forces in Mali

  • Some 750 French troops in Bamako and Mopti
  • French Mirage and Rafale jets
  • Nigeria to send 600 troops; Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo expected to send 500 each, and Benin 300
  • UK providing two C17 cargo planes for French effort
  • France says further logistics help coming from Denmark and US

He says the meeting of regional military commanders in the Malian capital will discuss equipment needs and how a military alliance with France will work in practice.

Ivory Coast army chief Gen Soumaila Bakayoko said: "We are here today to speak essentially about the engagement alongside our Malian brothers in arms, to liberate the north of Mali."

Nigeria is set to lead the regional force, supplying 600 troops.

The African force will be deployed under UN Security Council resolution 2085, which was passed in December and allows for a 3,000-strong mission.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says there will be a donor meeting towards the end of January to discuss the funding of the anti-Islamist intervention.

He also denied the French intervention would boost al-Qaeda recruitment.

"It's not encouraging terrorism to combat terrorism," he said.

UN support

French warplanes have carried out a series of air strikes since the intervention began on Friday.

Islamists are reported to have withdrawn from the major towns of Timbuktu and Gao.

Mali's rebels

  • Ansar Dine seeks to impose Islamic law across the country
  • A number of its militants are Tuareg fighters who returned from Libya after fighting alongside Muammar Gaddafi's troops
  • Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is al-Qaeda's North African wing, with roots in Algeria
  • Made up mostly of foreign fighters
  • Says it wants to spread Islamic law and liberate Malians from French colonial legacy
  • Known for kidnapping Westerners
  • Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) is an AQIM splinter group whose aim is to spread jihad to the whole of West Africa
  • Advocates Islamic law and has waged a campaign of violence against Tuareg separatists
  • Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is a secular Tuareg movement which seeks independence for a homeland they call Azawad
  • Cause dates back to when Mali achieved independence in 1960
  • Many of MNLA's Tuareg combatants fought alongside Colonel Gaddafi's troops
  • Former allies of Ansar Dine and Mujao, but now opposed to Islamist groups

One spokesman for the Ansar Dine militant group, Senda Ould Boumama, said the withdrawal was a "tactical retreat" to reduce civilian casualties.

One resident of Timbuktu told AFP: "The mujahideen have left. They are really scared."

However, one spokesman for the Islamist group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, told AP: "I would advise France not to sing their victory song too quickly. They managed to leave Afghanistan. They will never leave Mali."

On Monday, the UN Security Council convened in New York for an emergency meeting at France's request.

France's UN ambassador Gerard Araud said his country had the "understanding and support" of the 14 other Security Council members.

A meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Thursday will discuss EU involvement.

At least 11 Malian soldiers and a French helicopter pilot have died in Mali since Friday's intervention. More than 100 militants are reported to have been killed.

Islamist groups and secular Tuareg rebels took advantage of chaos following a military coup to seize northern Mali in April 2012.

But the Islamists soon took control of the region's major towns, sidelining the Tuaregs.

The UN says some 144,500 Malian refugees have been registered in neighbouring countries since April 2012.

It also says that 30,000 people have been displaced as a direct result of conflict this month.

The battle for Mali
Mali map showing different areas of control French forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist rebels have threatened to advance on the capital Bamako from their strongholds in the north. France said it had decided to act to stop the offensive, which could create "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe".
Mali in 1930s The landlocked area of West Africa was the core of ancient empires going back to the 4th Century. The French colonised Mali, then known as French Sudan, at the end of the 19th Century, while Islamic religious wars created theocratic states in the region.
Malian soldiers Mali gained independence in 1960 but endured droughts, rebellions and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. In the early 1990s, the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights.
Rebels The insurgency gathered momentum in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. Tuareg nationalists, alongside Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, seized control of the north in 2012 after a military coup by soldiers frustrated by government efforts against the rebels.
Refugee at UNHCR Mangaize refugee camp in Niger The fighting in the north and the establishment of a harsh form of Islamic law has forced thousands to flee their homes - some estimates say more than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries.
French fighter jet In January 2013, the Islamists captured the central city of Konna. France, responding to appeals for help from the Mali president, has sent about 550 troops to the Mopti and to Bamako, which is home to about 6,000 French nationals. French jets have also launched air strikes.

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