Malian military soldiers stand near an armoured vehicle
belonging to the French Army at the Malian military Command
Post in Sevare, about 600km northeast of the capital
Bamako. REUTERS/Adama Diarra
French-backed government forces have advanced into
northern Mali towards the Islamist rebel stronghold of Gao,
recapturing the town of Hombori and forcing al Qaeda-allied
fighters to pull back under relentless French air strikes.
France sent troops and aircraft to its former colony two
weeks ago to block a southward offensive by Islamists
occupying Mali's north. French and Malian troops have been
pushing forward on either side of the Niger River, securing
several farming towns recaptured over the last week.
Leaders gathered at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa
appealed for logistical support, supplies and funding from
the international community to allow a nearly 6,000-strong
African ground force to deploy fully.
Malian officials said government forces entered Hombori,
about 160km southwest of Gao, late on Thursday (local time)
and said an offensive against Gao could take place in the
next few days.
Gao, with the other Saharan desert towns of Timbuktu and
Kidal, has been occupied since last year by an Islamist
alliance that includes AQIM, the north African franchise of
"Our troops supported by French forces entered Hombori
yesterday evening without any combat. The Islamists had
already deserted the town," a Malian military officer, who
asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Mali's national radio said Hombori's inhabitants turned out
to cheer the government soldiers.
South of Mopti, a Reuters reporter saw a large column of
French armoured vehicles and supply trucks rolling northeast
along the main road in the direction of Gao.
Western and African leaders say the U.N.-backed intervention
in Mali is necessary to stop the country's north - a vast,
lawless tract of desert and mountains that juts into the
Sahara - from becoming a safe haven for radical Islamist
jihadists seeking to launch international attacks.
The United States and the European Union are helping with the
airlift of French troops and equipment to Mali but have ruled
out sending any combat troops. An EU mission to help train
the Malian army will start next month.
Britain said it was sending a Sentinel manned surveillance
aircraft to assist the campaign against the insurgents.
ISLAMISTS BLOW ROAD BRIDGE
Malian officials said French air raids on Thursday hit rebel
positions at Ansongo, 95km south of Gao. This is on the road
to neighbouring Niger, where Nigerien and Chadian forces are
poised to join the fight against the Islamists.
But in a sign of Islamist rebel resistance, a Malian officer
and residents living in the area south of Gao reported the
militants had blown up a bridge at Tassiga, south of Ansongo,
on the road following the Niger River down to Niger.
Two civilians were reported killed when their vehicle drove
off the destroyed bridge, the same sources said.
French Rafale jets and Tiger helicopter gunships have been
harrying the rebel fighters with air strikes on their
vehicles, bases and stores.
The rebels have abandoned caches of munitions, including one,
at Diabaly in central Mali, found to contain rockets for a
Soviet-made BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher, witnesses
Despite the optimism now being shown by Malian military
commanders, French officials have said their Islamist
opponents appear well trained and well equipped, and are
likely to resort to hit-and-run guerrilla warfare rather then
committing to a conventional battle.
On Thursday, a split emerged in the Islamist militant
coalition. One Tuareg leader of the Malian Ansar Dine group
announced the creation of a new faction, said he wanted talks
and rejected any alliance with AQIM.
France has 2,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali as part of
its Operation Serval (Wildcat), while a total of 3,700 French
armed forces members are involved in the whole operation,
according to the French Defence Ministry.
Only around 1,200 soldiers of the African intervention force
for Mali, known as AFISMA and to be mostly comprised of
troops from neighbouring West African nations, have so far
arrived in the country. Troops from Burkina Faso, Benin,
Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Niger and Chad are being deployed.
LOGISTICS AN OBSTACLE
Asked what was holding back the full deployment of the
African force, the AU's peace and security commissioner,
Ramtane Lamamra, told Reuters in Addis Ababa: "One word,
The AFISMA force needed airlift support, ammunition, telecoms
equipment, field hospitals, food and water, he said. It also
required training to operate in Mali's desert and arid
Lamamra said the fast-moving situation in Mali had shown up
the need for the African continental body to improve its
ability to deploy its rapid-reaction military force.
"This is one of the first lessons learned (from Mali) and we
will be working hard on that," Lamamra said, speaking on the
sidelines of the AU summit.
Chad and Niger are readying troops with desert fighting
experience to cross the border from Niger towards Gao in a
separate flanking offensive.
But Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki told Reuters in
Addis Ababa his country was having problems finding planes to
ferry armoured troop vehicles to Niger for its contingent.
"We're waiting for assistance from the international
community to help us deploy all of the equipment," he said.
A conference of donors to support the Mali intervention will
be held in Addis Ababa, on Jan. 29 after the AU summit.
Lamamra said hundreds of millions of dollars would be sought
to train, arm and deploy Malian and African troops. Earlier
this week France put the targeted figure at about 340 million
euros ($US452 million) for a full year.
The European Union has earmarked 50 million euros to pay the
salaries of the African ground troops, a French diplomatic
source said. It was not clear what period this would cover.