PARIS (Reuters) - France has delayed plans to redeploy 3,000 soldiers to fight militants across West Africa, saying it first needs to help deal with a fresh outbreak of violence in northern Mali.
Paris had hoped to move the troops from its former colony Mali and other bases to target Islamist groups operating between southern Libya, northern Chad and northern Niger. It fears the fighters could use the region to mount international attacks.
But it paused the plans after deadly clashes broke out between Mali government troops and Tuareg separatists in the north over the weekend, said officials.
“Given the events of the last 48 hours, the operation to transfer operation Serval (in Mali) to a Sahel-Sahara French force must be delayed for several weeks,” a defense ministry source said.
France originally sent troops into Mali after al Qaeda-linked Islamists took advantage of a Tuareg-led rebellion and seized control of the country’s north in 2012. A French-led military operation, known as Serval, drove them back last year.
After that intervention drove the Islamists from major cities and towns, Mali’s government and separatist groups signed a deal in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to hold talks about greater autonomy for the north, but little progress has been made since last year with tensions gradually rising.
A French military source said no new date had been set For the broader West African deployment, originally scheduled to be completed by the end of May.
The Malian army was preparing to launch an assault on the northern town of Kidal, where at least eight soldiers and eight civilians including six government officials were killed when rebels attacked the regional governor’s office on Saturday while Prime Minister Mousse Mara was in the town.
The United States has warned that northern Mali risked sliding back into war and urged all sides to return to talks.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian postponed a May 25 trip to Mali and Chad, where the new broader operation will be based.
He had planned to outline details of the mission that would operate across the Sahel region along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, to fight Islamist militancy.
“There is an urgency in the coming days to restore calm in Kidal, because this must not derail the reconciliation process,” a French diplomatic source said.
France, the United States and Britain agreed over the weekend to increase their cooperation with West African leaders to fight Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram, the source said.
Paris has promised to use Rafale fighter jets from Chad’s capital N‘Djamena, just 60 km (37 miles) from the Nigerian border, for reconnaissance missions.
Reporting By John Irish and Marine Pennetier; Editing by Andrew Heavens