France's Fabius says Africa 'must' send troops to Mali

Benin soldiers prepare to leave Cotonou for Mali on 18 January 2013 at the Cotonu airport
Image caption The regional troops will be deployed in Mali under a UN Security Council resolution

West African leaders have been told they must "pick up the baton" in the military offensive to drive Islamist insurgents out of Mali.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France had been obliged to send in troops "very, very rapidly otherwise there would be no more Mali".

But he has told a meeting in the Ivory Coast that the deployment of African soldiers is now a priority.

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara also called for more support for Mali.

He said "the hour has come for a broader commitment by the major powers and more countries and organisations... to show greater solidarity with France and Africa in the total and multi-faceted war against terrorism in Mali".

France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Saturday that 2,000 troops were now on the ground in Mali, and the final total could top the 2,500 originally pledged.

The troops will stay in Mali for as long as necessary "to defeat terrorism" in West Africa, President Francois Hollande has said.

Islamist fighters on Friday withdrew from two towns in central Mali following French air strikes.

Officials say the Islamists have now left the southern town of Diabaly, which they took on Monday, while Mali's army has also recaptured Konna, which was seized by rebels triggering the French intervention.

Questions over foreign troops

Laurent Fabius said upon his arrival in the Ivorian capital Abidjan that it was time for the African nations to take over "as soon as possible".

"France was obliged to intervene very, very rapidly, otherwise there would have been no more Mali," he was quoted by the Agence France Presse as saying.

"But it is well understood that it is the Africans that must pick up the baton," he added.

Mr Fabius also confirmed that France would lead a European mission next month to help train and rebuild the Malian army.

He has urged Africa's international partners to help with logistical and financial support and said a donors' meeting in Addis Ababa at the end of the month would be crucial in addressing the needs of Mali and the region, the BBC's Thomas Fessy reports from Abidjan.

The first 100 troops of an African force - from Togo and Nigeria - landed in Mali's capital, Bamako, on Thursday.

They are being deployed under a UN Security Council resolution.

The original UN-backed strategy to reclaim northern Mali from Islamist rebels had France - among other Western powers - providing logistical support to an African-led force, adds our correspondent, but it is now clear that French troops will remain at the frontline of operations.

Nigeria will lead the West African force, with Chad, Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo also sending soldiers.

Nigeria says it will increase its forces to 1,200.

Chad has confirmed it will send 2,000 soldiers and it may also contribute its air force, considered one of the most effective on the continent.

The battle for Mali

Image caption French forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist forces 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 caption The 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 caption Mali 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 caption The 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 caption The 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 caption In 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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