A Malian gendarme stands guard after the arrival of a US
Air Force C-17 transport plane with French troops at the
airport in Bamako. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Chadian forces have advanced towards the Malian border as
an African troop deployment and a US military airlift swelled
international support for French operations against Islamist
rebels occupying the north of Mali.
An armoured column of Chadian troops, experienced in desert
operations, moved north from the Niger capital Niamey on the
road to Ouallam, some 100km from the Malian border, where
Nigerien troops are already stationed.
France, which launched air strikes in Mali 11 days ago to
halt a surprise Islamist offensive toward the capital Bamako,
has urged a swift deployment of the planned UN-mandated
African force to back up its 2,150 soldiers already there.
The number of French troops could be boosted to more than
3,000 in the coming days and weeks, a source with knowledge
of the matter said on Tuesday.
The aim of the intervention is to prevent northern Mali from
becoming a launchpad for international attacks by al Qaeda
and its local allies in North and West Africa. Fears of this
increased sharply after a hostage-taking raid by Islamist
militants last week on a gas plant in Algeria.
An entry into Mali from Niger by part of the African force
would widen the front of operations against the Islamist
alliance in the north that groups al Qaeda's North African
wing AQIM and the Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and
On Monday, French and Malian armoured columns moved into the
towns of Diabaly and Douentza in central Mali after the
rebels who had seized them fled into the bush to avoid air
strikes. Diabaly is only 350 km (220 miles) north of Bamako,
while Douentza is 800 km away from the riverside capital.
Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who visited the troops at
Ouallam, condemned the Islamist alliance, and an imam, or
Muslim cleric, said prayers for the troops.
"We are going to war. A war imposed on us by traffickers of
all kinds, an unjust war, from which the peaceful citizens of
northern Mali are suffering terribly," Issoufou told the
"I am confident in your burning desire for victory."
France says its troops will remain in Mali until they have
completely dislodged the Islamist fighters from the north and
fair elections can be held in its former colony.
In support of France, the United States has started
transporting French soldiers and equipment to Mali from the
Istres air base in southern France. Washington on Tuesday
completed the fifth of an estimated 30 flights in an airlift
expected to run for about a week.
A Reuters correspondent in Bamako saw a US military cargo
plane land at the international airport and offload about 40
French soldiers, jeeps, and other equipment.
Britain, Belgium, Canada and Denmark were already
transporting French materiel to Mali. Benson said the United
States was also working with France on intelligence issues,
but declined to say if surveillance drones were being used.
"EVERYONE WILL FIGHT"
France has also sent jet fighters and attack helicopters that
have blasted rebel bases for more than a week, as it awaits
troops from nearby African nations to deploy to the front
Some 1,000 African troops from the West African regional bloc
ECOWAS and the central African nation of Chad have arrived,
and that number is expected to top 5,000 in the coming weeks.
Military experts say the swift and effective deployment of
African forces is crucial to sustain the momentum of France's
air campaign and prevent Islamists from melting away into the
empty desert or the rugged mountains near the Algerian
Niger's armed forces, which completed their training a month
ago, are expected to advance toward the rebel-held north
Malian city of Gao in collaboration with the Chadian troops.
It was not clear when exactly they would cross the border.
Gao, the largest city of Mali's north, has been hit by French
air strikes in recent days.
Niger has already sent a technical team to Mali, part of a
battalion of 544 troops accompanied by French liaison
Nigeria, a big oil producer, also plans to deploy some 1,200
troops in Mali and its president, Goodluck Jonathan, said
they would stay there until the crisis was resolved.
Colonel Oumar Kande, ECOWAS military and security adviser in
Mali, told Reuters in Bamako the original plan for the
U.N.-backed ECOWAS military intervention in the north was
being changed to adapt to fast-evolving circumstances.
Instead of the Malian army alone playing the combat role,
with ECOWAS supporting, now "everyone will fight", Kande
"We need to adjust to the reality on the ground."
Kande said ECOWAS was concerned about its troops having to
fight a difficult counter-insurgency war in a northern Mali
desert and mountain battleground the size of Texas against
Islamist fighters likely to shun a head-on conventional
"Given the force of the reaction from the international
community, they (the rebels) are likely to adjust and begin
an asymmetrical war, ambushes, strikes by small cells," he
"It is possible we will win back Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal in
a month, but it is impossible to say how long the overall war
The rebels have imposed severe sharia (Islamic law) in areas
they control, carrying out amputations and at least one fatal
stoning, and wrecking ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi
$450 MLN SOUGHT FOR AFRICAN TROOPS
International donors will be asked to finance training and
support for the Malian, ECOWAS and other African troops
involved in the deployment of the U.N.-backed African force
AFISMA against the Islamist alliance.
Donors are to meet at a conference in the Ethiopian capital
Addis Ababa on Jan. 29 and France said they would be asked to
provide about 340 million euros ($452 million).
"We estimate that the Malian forces needs will be around 120
million euros and about 220 million euros for AFISMA for a
full year," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe
Since the French started their operations earlier in January
to block the jihadist thrust out of northern Mali, several
thousand civilians have fled the recent fighting to
neighbouring states, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said. In
Mauritania, 4,208 Malian refugees have arrived since January
11, it said.
Niger had seen 1,300 new refugees, mainly from Menaka and
Anderamboukane, while during the same period, Burkina Faso
had received 1,829 new refugees, mainly Tuaregs and Songhai
from the regions of Gossi, Timbuktu, Gao and Bambara Maoude.
This was on top of almost 400,000 Malians displaced since
April, when an offensive by Tuareg rebels allied with
Islamist fighters seized Mali's largely desolate north
following a military coup in Bamako in March.