West African troops arrive in Mali to aid French mission

BAMAKO/SEGOU, Mali Thu Jan 17, 2013 6:36pm EST

1 of 9. Togolese Army soldiers enter a plane to leave for deployment to Mali, from Togo's capital Lome January 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Noel Kokou Tadegnon (TOGO - Tags: MILITARY CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

Related Topics

BAMAKO/SEGOU, Mali (Reuters) - 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 neighbor 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, traumatizing 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 neighbor 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.

Communications with residents in Islamist-controlled towns have become more difficult as some mobile phone towers have stopped working. Residents said rebel fighters are suspicious of anyone using phones, fearing they are passing information to the enemy.

"There are no longer any police stations. (The Islamists) have dispersed across the city, mixing in with the population," said Ibrahim Mamane, a resident from the town of Gao who reached the border with Niger.

"The population is ready and is waiting for the French forces with open arms. If they attack Gao, the people will fight the Islamists with their bare hands," he added.

Reuters journalists travelling north of Bamako saw residents welcoming French troops and, in places, French and Malian flags hung side by side.


Mali's recent troubles began with a coup in Bamako last March, ending a period of stable rule that saw a series of elections. In the confusion that followed, Islamist forces seized large swathes of the north and imposed a strict rule reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Military experts say France and its African allies must now capitalize on a week of hard-hitting air strikes by seizing the initiative on the ground to prevent the insurgents from withdrawing into the desert and reorganizing.

"The whole world clearly needs to unite and do much more than is presently being done to contain terrorism," Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said.

Diabaly is a country town with a population of about 35,000, about 360 km (220 miles) from Bamako and near the border with Mauritania, where AQIM has bases.

A spokesman for MUJWA confirmed that their positions in Diabaly had been fired on but said French forces had not penetrated the town itself.

Diabaly Mayor Salif Ouedrago, who fled on Wednesday, told Malian state radio: "There were deaths on the side of the jihadists. They buried their dead yesterday."

Meanwhile, the Malian army rushed reinforcements to a town closer to Bamako on Thursday after Islamist fighters were spotted near the frontier with Mauritania.

"Banamba is in a state of alert. Reinforcements have been sent. Nigerian troops expected to arrive in Bamako today could be deployed there to secure the zone," a senior Malian military source told Reuters.

An inhabitant of Banamba, 140 km (90 miles) from the capital, reported the arrival of soldiers after insurgents were seen in the Boron border area.

With African states facing huge logistical and transport challenges, Germany promised two Transall military transport planes to help fly in their soldiers.

Britain has supplied two C-17 military transport planes to ferry in French armored vehicles and medical supplies. The United States is considering logistical and surveillance support but has ruled out sending in U.S. troops.

(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra in Bamako, Benkoro Sangare in Niono, Noel Tadegnon in Lome and David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Daniel Flynn and David Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (4)
ofilha wrote:
Don’t do like Bush did with Afghanistan. When the Taliban thought the US was going to attack Omar sent all his troops to one location, and then realizing that that was a big mistake he hollered at them to spread out, while the mightiest military on earth tried to clobber together an invasion force. The US could have annihilated the whole taliban in those three days they were all in the mountain.

Jan 17, 2013 1:15pm EST  --  Report as abuse
1XslaveUSA wrote:
Nothing to see here – move along: Mali, Gold reserves, Germany, France and the US
Germany wants their gold holdings repatriated to home soil. They have asked the French to return ALL of their gold stored in France, at a rate of 50 tons per year until all 374 metric tons are received.
The French have just commenced military operations in Mali. Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer. Mali, this past year, increased its gold production by just over 50 metric tons.
Obama has offered logistical and other support for the French bombing of Mali from Algeria.
Dozens of foreign oil workers kidnapped (many killed by the inept rescuers) by Algerian Islamic Extremists in Algeria, several of them are reportedly Americans.
Is anyone else seeing the connections here?
I’m willing to bet that France does not have Germany’s gold and the Deutsche Bundesbank (German Federal Bank) has given them a few years to mine it from Mali. Yet the Mali source must be secure, hence the military must make sure the gold flows.
The Germans have also requested the U.S. Federal Reserve to return 300 tons of stored German Gold.
A tiny fraction of the supposed 8,000 tons of US Gold Reserves.
But the U.S. Federal Reserve are going to take 7 years to repatriate this tiny proportion of Gold holdings back to Germany.
Why is it going to take them so long?
How much gold is actually stored in Federal Reserve vaults?
How much of it might be gold plated tungsten?
Inanely the Germans say they are not going to assay the repatriated gold.

Jan 17, 2013 2:12pm EST  --  Report as abuse
WiseOldElf wrote:

You have been spending too much time watching dumbed down conspiracy flicks on TV; the result: your view of the world has been terribly warped! I am surprised you are unable to connect the dots to see how the events in Mali affect us all. You really need to get out of the house some more!

Jan 17, 2013 4:10pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.