Mali conflict: France boosts troop numbers

media captionThe BBC's Mark Doyle in the capital Bamako says the situation in Konna, around 700 km away, is "confused"

France has increased its troop strength in Mali to 1,400 to help fight militant Islamists in the north, the French defence minister has said.

France said it launched military action in its former colony last Friday to stop it becoming a "terrorist state" after a rapid advance by the Islamists.

Heavy fighting has been continuing, with French forces bombing Diabaly, 350km (220 miles) north of the capital.

Troops pledged by West African nations have also started arriving in Mali.

Some 100 Togolese soldiers landed in Bamako on Thursday, with 80 Nigerian troops expected shortly.

In Brussels, the EU foreign ministers agreed to press ahead with sending a team to train the weak Malian army.

"The actions of French forces, be it air forces or ground forces, are ongoing," France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday.

"They took place yesterday, they took place last night, they took place today, they will take place tomorrow."

On Wednesday, French and Malian sources said their forces launched the first major ground operation against the militants, with street battles taking place in Diabaly.

But Diabaly's mayor, Oumar Diakite, told the BBC from Bamako only Malian troops were involved in the battle. Both sides suffered casualties, he said.

"The Islamists were burying their dead next to our cemetery in Diabaly. There were also three bodies of Malian soldiers lying on the side of the road," Mr Diakite added.

"The residents wanted to take the bodies and bury them, but they [the militants] would not let us."

'Limited support'

Mr Diakite said French forces were in the nearby town of Niono. "They are co-ordinating with the Malian army," he said.

Well-armed Islamists entered Diabaly on Monday, taking the town from Malian forces.

French fighter jets have since attacked rebel positions.

France launched its operation last Friday, after the Islamists seized Konna and began advancing further south. It had some 800 troops in Mali, before the latest deployment.

Defence sources said their numbers were expected to increase to 2,500.

Nigeria - which has promised to send a total of 900 troops as well as fighter jets - will lead the West African force.

Chad has also confirmed 2,000 soldiers will join the anti-rebel operation in Mali.

Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged to take part.

In total, 3,300 regional troops will be deployed in the conflict under a UN Security Council resolution.

France has been pushing hard for the deployment of West African troops and the arrival of the first Nigerian troops should bring some relief to French soldiers who are only getting limited support from the fairly weak Malian army, analysts say.

It is not yet known exactly what role the West African troops will play or how well prepared they are for what is expected to be a challenging ground assault against the Islamist militants.

The UK has provided transport planes, and on Wednesday Germany gave two transport planes as logistical support.

EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday to send a military training mission to Mali.

No combat role is envisaged for it.

"The threat of jihadi terrorists is something that should be a matter of great concern to all of us," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said, ahead of the meeting, Reuters news agency reports.

"And there is not one European country that can hide if this threat would present itself to the European continent."

Islamist groups and secular Tuareg rebels took advantage of chaos following a military coup to seize northern Mali in April 2012. But the Islamists soon took control of the region's major towns, sidelining the Tuaregs.

The battle for Mali

image captionFrench forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist rebels have threatened to advance on the capital Bamako from their strongholds in the north. France said it had decided to act to stop the offensive, which could create "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe".
image captionThe landlocked area of West Africa was the core of ancient empires going back to the 4th Century. The French colonised Mali, then known as French Sudan, at the end of the 19th Century, while Islamic religious wars created theocratic states in the region.
image captionMali gained independence in 1960 but endured droughts, rebellions and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. In the early 1990s, the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights.
image captionThe insurgency gathered momentum in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. Tuareg nationalists, alongside Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, seized control of the north in 2012 after a military coup by soldiers frustrated by government efforts against the rebels.
image captionThe fighting in the north and the establishment of a harsh form of Islamic law has forced thousands to flee their homes - some estimates say more than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries.
image captionIn January 2013, the Islamists captured the central city of Konna. France, responding to appeals for help from the Mali president, has sent about 550 troops to the Mopti and to Bamako, which is home to about 6,000 French nationals. French jets have also launched air strikes.

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