West African troops arrive in Mali to aid French missionReuters . Bamako, Mali
The first West African regional forces arrived in Mali on Thursday to reinforce French and Malian troops battling to push back al Qaeda-linked rebels after seven days of French air strikes.
A contingent of around 100 Togolese troops landed in Bamako and was due to be joined by Nigerian forces already en route. Nigerien and Chadian forces were massing in Niger, Mali’s neighbour to the east.
The scrambling of the U.N.-mandated African mission, which previously had not been due for deployment until September, will be a boon for France, the former colonial power in Mali.
French troops, which had moved northwards from Bamako in an armored column on Tuesday, pinned down some Islamist fighters in the small town of Diabaly. But French forces held back from launching an all-out assault as the insurgents had taken refuge in the homes of civilians, residents said.
‘The Islamists are still in Diabaly. They are very many of them. Every time they hear a plane overhead, they run into homes, traumatising the people,’ said one woman who fled the town with her three children overnight.
Residents in the town of Konna, to the north of the central garrison town of Sevare, said Islamists had fled as Malian soldiers backed by French troops deployed.
‘Life is difficult for the people of northern Mali and the international community has the duty to help these people,’ said Togolese Lieutenant Colonel Mawoute Bayassim Gnamkoulamba.
‘That is why we think that it is necessary for us to protect Mali and we are proud today to fulfill that mission.’
French forces, numbering some 1,400 soldiers, began ground operations on Wednesday against an Islamist coalition grouping al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM and the home-grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militants.
President Francois Hollande ordered the intervention on the grounds that the Islamists who had taken over the poor West African country’s north could turn it into a ‘terrorist state’ which would radiate a threat beyond its borders.
Hollande has pledged they will stay until stability returns to Mali but, in the first apparent retaliatory attack, al Qaeda-linked militants took dozens of foreigners hostage at a gas plant in Algeria, blaming Algerian cooperation with France.
A total of 2,500 French troops are expected in Mali but Paris is keen to swiftly hand the mission over to West Africa’s ECOWAS bloc, which in December secured a U.N. mandate for a 3,300-strong mission to help Mali recapture its north.
A rebel push into central Mali was last week halted by bombings by French aircraft and the deployment of ground troops.
A convoy of armored vehicles, fuel tankers and ambulances and around 200 soldiers from Mali’s eastern neighbour Niger was positioned at that eastern border, witnesses said.
A Reuters witness at the scene said heavy weapons fire rang out as troops tested artillery.
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