France steps up Mali operation
France hit Islamist rebels in Mali with fresh air strikes and deployed armoured cars today, stepping up its intervention in the West African state as regional allies struggled to accelerate their plans to send in troops.
Paris has poured hundreds of soldiers into Mali and carried out air raids since Friday in the northern half of the country, which was seized last year by an Islamist alliance combining al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM with Mali's home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine rebel groups.
Western and regional states fear the insurgents will use Mali's north, a vast and inhospitable area of desert and rugged mountains the size of Texas, as a base for attacks on the African continent and also in Europe.
West African defence chiefs were meeting in the Malian capital Bamako today to approve plans for speeding up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops, foreseen in a United Nation-backed intervention plan to be led by Africans. France sent its forces into Mali last week to block a surprise southwards push by the rebels.
Speaking during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, president Francois Hollande said French forces carried out further air strikes overnight in Mali "which hit their targets".
"We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air," Mr Hollande said. "We have 750 troops deployed at the moment and that will keep increasing so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans."
A column of French armoured vehicles rumbled into the dusty riverside capital overnight. The vehicles, which had driven up from a French base in Ivory Coast, were expected to move northwards eventually towards the combat zone.
France's defence ministry has said it plans to deploy 2,500 soldiers in its former colony to bolster the Malian army and work with the intervention force provided by the ECOWAS grouping of West African states.
Mr Hollande saw the ECOWAS deployment taking "a good week".
There are some concerns that a delay in following up on the French air bombardments of Islamist bases and fuel depots with a ground offensive could allow the insurgents to slip away into the desert and mountains, regroup and counter-attack.
The rebels, who French officials say are mobile and well-armed, have shown they can hit back, dislodging government forces from Diabaly, 350 km from Bamako yesterday.
The United Nations has said some 30,000 people may have been displaced by fighting in the country.