French ground troops ready to battle Islamists

French ground forces prepared to engage in Mali for the first time Tuesday to drive Islamists out of the town of Diabaly, which they seized a day earlier, while a first lot of regional troops headed to join the offensive.

Onlookers watch French army soldiers on a tank on January 15, 2013, near Bamako. French ground forces prepared to engage in Mali for the first time Tuesday to drive Islamists out of the town of Diabaly, which they seized a day earlier, while a first lot of regional troops headed to join the offensive.

As witnesses reported hundreds of Malian and French troops in armoured vehicles headed to Diabaly, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital, another convoy was seen leaving Bamako in a northern direction.

"Several hundred Malian and French soldiers left Niono (south of Diabaly) to take" back the town, said a local government official in Niono, while a security source announced plans to "take back Diabaly with the French."

Overnight, French fighter jets launched strikes on Diabaly, but a regional security source said the insurgents were still in the zone, some of whom had taken hostage a local government official and his family.

The engagement of ground forces on the fifth day of an offensive waged up to now with fighter jets came as French defence sources said the country would triple its force in the country to a total of 2,500 troops.

Speaking in Dubai, French President Francois Hollande said that his government does not intend to keep forces in Mali, but will remain until security is restored and "terrorists" eliminated.

West African army chiefs meanwhile met Tuesday in Bamako to plan the roll-out of a UN-mandated, 3,300-strong regional intervention force in the former French colony.

"We are here today to speak about the engagement alongside our Malian brothers in arms, to liberate the north of Mali," Ivory Coast army chief General Soumaila Bakayoko said at the talks.

Nigeria, which is leading the force, said the first of its troops would deploy to Mali within 24 hours.

Defence spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerima said Nigeria's total commitment will be 900 troops, 300 more than earlier announced.

Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged troops.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Islamists were putting up tough resistance.

"We are up against a determined adversary that is well equipped and has not given up, but we have hit them hard with our strikes, including those deep in their territory," Le Drian said.

He added the jihadists remained in control of the central Malian town of Konna, whose capture prompted the French to intervene and drive the rebels back after they threatened to advance on the capital.

The Malians earlier reported they had "total control" of the town.

He admitted the Malian forces around Diabaly were struggling in combat.

"Malian forces have been sorely tried in recent combat. Our presence has strengthened them," he said.

-- 'Jihadists in it for the long-haul' --

Since France launched its offensive, the Islamists have fled key strongholds under their control since April, when they took over the vast desert north, implementing their brutal version of Islamic law.

Analysts have said the Islamist retreat was likely a tactical move.

"The jihadists are in it for the long-haul. They are comfortable in this situation: the vast desert, a difficult terrain, a precarious security situation," said Tunisian Islamist expert Alaya Allani.

Hollande, speaking earlier from a French military base in Abu Dhabi, said the French intervention had prevented Mali from being overrun by "terrorists".

The 15-nation UN Security Council on Monday expressed its unanimous support for the French offensive.

Washington also welcomed the action.

"It's absolutely critical to stop the offensive of terrorist groups towards southern Mali," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

But the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, of which Mali is a member, called Tuesday for an immediate ceasefire, dubbing the offensive "premature" and urging all parties to return to negotiations.

So far the unrest has sent 144,500 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, while another 230,000 are internally displaced, the UN humanitarian agency said Tuesday.

The fighting has also left at least 11 Malian soldiers dead and one French helicopter pilot.

The hold by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists on vast swathes of northern Mali has fuelled fears the zone -- a hostile, semi-arid region more than double the size of France -- could become an Afghan-style breeding ground for terrorists.

Belgium offered two C-130 transport planes and two helicopters to back up France's offensive, while Britain and Canada have offered troop transporters.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany was considering logistical or humanitarian support, warning Mali should not be allowed to become a failed state.

And EU diplomats said European Union foreign ministers would meet Thursday to speed up the disp

atch of a mission to train Mali's army and discuss how best to back up the African force.

Hollande met Tuesday with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who raised the possibility of participating in "Operation Serval" -- named after a small African cat -- according to Hollande's entourage.

The French president also intimated that Chad and the United Arab Emirates could take part.

At home, France has deployed 700 troops in and around Paris, indicating mounting concern over potential reprisal attacks.

Mali's militant Islamists have warned France has "opened the doors of hell" by unleashing its warplanes and have called on fellow extremists to hit back on French soil.

Afghanistan's Taliban have joined in condemning France's intervention, warning of "disastrous" consequences.

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Writer: AFP
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