BAKAMO, Mali – French forces in Mali reached 2,000 as they prepare to support West African soldiers arriving to join the conflict in the desert north.
Mali’s army Friday secured the central town of Kona three days after French fighter jets drove out Islamist rebels. The battle lasted almost 48 hours, Col. Didier Dakouo, the head of the central Sevare military base, said on state-owned Office de Radio Diffusion Télévision du Mali Friday.
It was the capture of the town by rebels last week that triggered the French intervention. French forces have targeted insurgents controlling about two-thirds of the landlocked West African nation, which vies with Tanzania as the continent’s third-biggest gold producer. Neighboring countries are sending as many as 3,300 troops to bolster the effort to restore government control of the north.
Air strikes “dealt a serious blow” to the insurgents in the northern town of Gao, Sidi Haidarra, a teacher who fled the town and arrived in Bamako on Friday, said in an interview. “They completely obliterated their main arms and fuel stock. Hundreds of fighters fled the city after the strikes.”
The insurgents are a mix of al-QaIda-linked Islamist militants and Tuareg groups demanding greater autonomy for the north. French helicopter-borne special forces supported the Malian troops in Kona, French officials said.
In addition to Mali, the French military has another 900 committed to the mission in neighboring countries.
France has six Dassault Aviation SA Mirage 2000 fighter jets and four Rafales based in Chad, and about 10 attack helicopters based between Mali and Burkino Faso, Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French military, said Friday. Two Mirage F1s are based in Bamako.
The number of French troops in the country could reach 2,500, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Abidjan, where West African leaders are meeting to discuss the Mali situation.
About 250 troops from Togo and Nigeria arrived in Mali on Jan. 17. At least 2,000 African troops will arrive in less than a week to join a ground offensive, Chaka Aboudou Toure, the representative to Mali of the Economic Community of West African States Commission, said in Bamako.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan increased his nation’s contribution to the force to 1,200 as troops from eight West African nations started arriving to battle the insurgents.
Nigeria’s “national security is under imminent threat or danger as a result of the crises in northern Mali,” he said in a letter to the Senate Friday.
International donors will meet Jan. 29 in Addis Ababa to discuss funding for the African mission.
The European Union is bringing forward the timetable to start a military training mission to Mali by the middle of next month. The 450-member team, which has an initial 15-month mandate, won’t be involved in combat, the EU said.
The French military blocked roads south of the central town of Diabaly, about 250 miles north of Bamako. Fighting continues in the town, Mohamed Koumare, whose wife and child were trapped there, said in an interview in the capital.
French planes have flown 110 sorties since the start of the operation, Burkhard said.
“I called a friend in the army, who said they couldn’t hold Kona and the French saved us,” Daouda Malle, a 34-year- old computer specialist, said in an interview. “I know now that I wouldn’t sit talking and sipping tea with my friends if it wasn’t for the French. Everybody is supporting them.”
Sixty-five percent of French approve of their military intervention in Mali, according to an Ifop poll for newspaper Sud Ouest. The poll was carried out Jan. 15-17 with 2,002 people. No margin of error was given.
France intervened after it received a request from interim President Dioncounda Traore. Germany, the U.K., the U.S., Canada and Belgium are assisting with air transport.
The French said they wanted to prevent Bamako falling to the militants, and that their role now is to prepare and support an African force to re-take the north of the country from the Islamists. They number 2,000 to 5,000, with criminal bands and drugs smugglers on the fringes, according to a report from CF2R, a French institute that does research on intelligence.
Mali’s rebels exploited political instability in Bamako, following a March coup to seize control of the north. Mali is now led by Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of the coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.
The country ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.
Its $10.6 billion economy contracted 4.5 percent last year and is forecast to grow 3 percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund.
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