By Marco Trujillo
BAMAKO Jan 17 The first detachment of a West
African regional force arrived in Mali on Thursday to reinforce
French and Malian troops which have struggled to push back
battle-hardened al Qaeda-linked rebels despite seven days of air
A contingent of around 100 Togolese troops, which arrived at
Bamako international airport at around 1700 GMT, was due to be
joined shortly afterwards by Nigerian forces already en route
from Kaduna airport, in the north of the oil-producing state.
"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 fulfil that mission."
The rapid arrival of the U.N.-mandated African mission,
which had not been due to deploy until September, was a boon for
former colonial power France, which has warned that Islamist
control of northern Mali -- a vast desert area twice the size of
Texas -- posed a threat to the security of the West.
French troops, which had moved northwards from Bamako in an
armoured column on Tuesday, pinned down some Islamist fighters
in the small town of Diabaly but held back from launching a
full-out assault as the Al Qaeda linked rebels had taken refuge
in the homes of civilians, residents said.
French forces, now numbering some 1,400 soldiers, had begun
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.
Al Qaeda-linked militants who took dozens of foreigners
hostage at a gas plant in Algeria said their action was in
reprisal for Algiers' cooperation with the French attack on
Islamists in northern Mali.