Conflict & Justice

Hollande says France to boost troops numbers in Mali offensive



French soldiers from the 2nd RIMA (French Navy Infantry Regiment), arriving from France, stand at the 101 military airbase near Bamako on January 14, 2013, before their deployment in north of Mali.



French President Francois Hollande has committed more French troops to countering an Islamist insurgency in Mali with the decision to increase the number of ground troops from the current 750 to 2,500, a recognition of the difficulty in driving the rebels out of the territory they hold in the north of the African country.

"The operation will be long and difficult," said Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.

Paris is also widening its diplomatic offensive. After securing the unanimous support of the UN Security Council on Monday, Hollande was in the United Arab Emirates on a pre-planned economic mission, but also seeking Arab backing for the operation in Mali.

Hollande stressed that French troops would leave once terrorist threat has been eradicated. "France does not have a vocation to stay in Mali," he told reporters in Dubai.

France's NATO allies lined up to express moral support for the French operation and some were offering logistic support. Canada has joined Britain in offering transport planes. An emergency meeting of European Union foreign ministers called for Thursday is expected to approve the deployment of a training mission for the Malian army.

Efforts to pull together a force from Mali's neighbours in Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were also ongoing, with the first units in a 900-strong Nigerian contingent due to arrive within 24 hours.

Also today, Nigeria said it will send nearly 200 troops to Mali within the next 24 hours to shore up French efforts to oust Islamist militants there, according to the Associated Press, a pledge that comes a day after France defended the operation and rebels seized a Mali town. 

The Nigerian deployment is the first wave of a 900-strong United Nations-mandated African force the nation is contributing to the French operation in the coming week, defense spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerima told journalists today, reported Agence France Press.

Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also promised troops, but doubts remain over their combat readiness and France is expected to remain at the vanguard of the push against the Islamists.

France, meanwhile, is using air and ground power in a joint offensive with Malian government troops launched Jan. 11 against hardline Islamist groups controlling northern Mali since April 2012.

Hollande was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying Tuesday, during a visit to Peace Camp military base in Abu Dhabi:

"For now, we have 750 men and the number will increase... so that as soon as possible we can leave the place to the African forces. France will continue to have ground and air forces."

According to the Associated Press, France's deployment of troops has pre-empted a UN-approved plan for military intervention in Mali.

Hollande was unwilling to wait the agreed nine months for the campaign to begin.

Around French 30 armored tanks and troop transport vehicles crossed from Ivory Coast into Mali Monday, escorted by a helicopter, witnesses told AFP.

France began air attacks against rebels in Northern Mali on Friday.

Meanwhile, French forces led a bombing campaign overnight around a Malian town overrun with Islamist extremists that, while it's too small to appear on an administrative map contains a strategic military camp.

"New strikes overnight achieved their goal," he told reporters while touring the base.

French forces in Mali will gradually increase to 2,500 troops, AFP quoted a defense source as saying.

At home in France, French police had stepped up patrols at train stations, airports, religious sites and tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, Bloomberg reported.