Mali conflict: US begins French troop airlifts

French soldiers carry their equipment after arriving on a US C17 transport plane at the airport in Bamako 22 January 2013
Image caption The US C17s are helping to move heavy, bulky equipment to Mali from France

The US military has begun airlifting French soldiers and equipment to Mali to support their operation against Islamist militants.

Five US flights had already landed in the capital, Bamako, with more planned in the coming days, a spokesman said.

France began its intervention nearly two weeks ago with the aim of halting the militants' advance south.

It plans to hand command of the operation to a West African force which has some 1,000 soldiers on the ground.

An estimated 2,000 French troops are currently in Mali, with 500 more expected.

Desert fighters

C17 transport planes had begun flights from a French base in Istres, in southern France, the US military's Africa Command said on Tuesday.

Pentagon spokesman George Little told Reuters news agency five sorties had been flown so far.

"The priority is to move heavy, bulky things" such as armoured vehicles, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard told the AFP news agency.

The UK, Belgium, Canada, Denmark and Italy are also providing transport planes for the French mission.

Initially, the US said it would provide communications help for the operation.

On Monday, French and Malian troops seized two key towns - Diabaly and Douentza - from the militants, after they had fled.

Col Burkhard said selected French air strikes had continued in the north, where Islamist militants had gained control last year.

Last month, the UN approved plans to send some 3,000 West African troops to Mali in September to recapture the vast desert region.

But, following France's intervention, the regional force, which will be under Nigeria's command, has begun an urgent deployment.

Chad, which is not part of the regional body Ecowas, is also sending 2,000 soldiers to work in co-ordination with French troops.

Analysts say their foot soldiers are experienced desert fighters and are likely to face combat, with the bulk of the Ecowas troops providing more of a policing role.

Mali's army chief General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele told AFP that Chadian troops would join some 500 Nigeri troops in western Niger with the aim of crossing the border and heading towards the town of Gao, in north-eastern Mali.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has praised France's intervention, saying dialogue with the militants was not possible "at this time", AP reports.

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, including Gao and Timbuktu, sidelining the Tuaregs.

The rise of Islamist militants in the Sahara

Image caption Following the recent attack on an Algerian gas plant, UK Prime Minister David Cameron says that the Sahara desert has turned into a haven for militant Islamists who are waging a jihad against the West. He says it will take decades to defeat them.
Image caption The Sahara used to be a thriving economic zone, famed for its long camel caravans laden with salt, which in the Middle Ages was said to be worth more than gold. But times - and trade routes - have changed and now the countries on the desert's southern fringes, mainly ex-French colonies, are among the world's poorest.
Image caption Although most of the desert's inhabitants are poor, there are rich natural resources to be found under the sands. Algeria has oil and gas, Niger has one of the world's largest uranium reserves, which power France's nuclear plants. Mali is Africa's third biggest gold producer.
Image caption Some of the region's inhabitants have used their desert knowledge for criminal purposes - smuggling migrants and drugs along ancient routes to Europe. Some jihadists have used the profits to buy arms. When Col Gaddafi was toppled in Libya in 2011, many Tuareg fighters returned to Mali and started a rebellion.
Image caption The Tuareg rebels joined forces with Islamists who had been expelled from Algeria in the 1990s and had spread across the Sahara, forging links with al-Qaeda and staging attacks in all of the region's countries. In April 2012, the new alliance quickly seized northern Mali - an area larger than France.
Image caption Numerous armed groups operate in the Sahara - with a mix of motivations from making money, to self-rule to global jihad. It is hard to know to what extent they work together. There are reports that other militant groups such as Nigeria's Boko Haram and Somalia's al-Shabab have links to the Saharan jihadists.
Image caption The militants who attacked the gas facility in Algeria are said to have been from countries across the region. Many Saharans share strong family and cultural ties with residents of the desert in other countries and see the desert as a single vast area rather than parts of several different national territories.

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