African nations urged to lead fight for Mali

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FRANCE’S foreign minister said yesterday that African ­nations should take the lead in a military intervention to oust ­Islamist insurgents from northern Mali.

Laurent Fabius was speaking at a summit in Ivory Coast focusing on ways that African forces could help. The meeting took place as France’s military intervention in Mali entered its second week.

“Step by step, I think it’s a question from what I heard this morning of some days, some weeks, the African troops will take over,” Fabius said.

Neighbouring countries are expected to contribute around 3,000 troops to the operation, which is aimed at preventing the militants, who are in control of northern Mali, from advancing further south toward the capital, Bamako.

While some initial contributions from Togo and Nigeria have arrived to help the French, concerns about the mission have delayed other west African countries from sending their promised troops so far. Funding for the mission is also an issue. Fabius said that a donor summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on 29 January “will be a key event”.

“I am calling all partners of African development to come to Addis Ababa and to make generous contributions to this work of solidarity, peace and security both for the region and the continent,” he said.

Speaking yesterday on French television, defence minister Jean-Yves Drian said France now has 2,000 troops in Mali and has mobilised 2,900 in support of the operation in neighbouring Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger.

He said France “could go beyond” the 2,500 troops initially announced for Mali, and that at full deployment, Operation Serval would involve some 4,000 troops.

Meanwhile, Drian insisted “there has been no ground combat in Diabaly” involving French troops.

French forces have moved around Diabaly to cut off supplies to the Islamists, who took the town on Monday, said a French official.

Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of west Africa’s most stable democracies with the majority of its 15.8 million people practising a moderate form of Islam. That changed last March, following a military coup in Bamako which fuelled the disarray that allowed Islamists to take over the main cities in the remote north.

The United Nations’ refugee agency warned last week that the fighting in Mali could force as many as 700,000 people to flee their homes in the coming months.