France to treble troop numbers in Mali to 2,500
France is set to treble its troop numbers in Mali, widening an intervention President François Hollande said would end only once stability had returned to the west African country.
As French jets continued to strike at targets across Mali’s vast northern desert yesterday, regional states said they would begin sending their own troops to Mali as early next week.
Paris hopes to hand over the mission to west African forces, but reports that its own deployment will rise from 750 to 2,500 men suggested the offensive was likely to intensify.
Some 30 French tanks and armoured vehicles crossed into Mali from Côte d’Ivoire yesterday.
The prospects of a drawn-out conflict appeared to rise further when Mr Hollande said France’s role was to ensure that “when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.”
Speaking on the visit to the United Arab Emirates, he said France would scale back its role “as soon as there is an African force, in the coming days or weeks”.
France had three aims, he said: to stop the rebel advances, to secure the capital, Bamako, and to help the Mali government regain control of the whole country. “France should only intervene in Africa in exceptional circumstances and for a limited time. That’s what we will do,” he added.
France sent hundreds of soldiers to Mali last week, leaving west African states scrambling to accelerate their plans to deploy their own troops in the country.
The French acted in response to a call from Mali’s president after Islamist rebels captured a strategic town that opened up a route to the capital, Bamako.
The UN security council on Monday gave its unanimous backing to France’s actions.
West African defence chiefs met in Bamako yesterday to approve plans for speeding up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops, foreseen in a UN-backed intervention plan. The original timetable for the UN-sanctioned African force – to be backed by western logistics, money and intelligence services – did not initially foresee full deployment before September due to logistical constraints.
Nigeria to lead mission
Nigeria, which is to lead the mission, has warned it will take time to assemble and train a multinational fighting force but pledged to deploy 190 of its own soldiers within 24 hours.
Other neighbours Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea have also offered troops.
Mali’s north, a vast and inhospitable area of desert and rugged mountains, was seized last year by an alliance combining Islamist rebels and Tuareg separatist groups.
France said on Monday that the US, Canada, Denmark and Germany had offered logistical support, and Belgium announced it would send two C130 transport planes and two medical helicopters to Mali following a request from Paris.
A meeting of donors for the operation is expected to be held in Ethiopia at the end of January.