African troops set for deployment in Mali

Announcement comes as Hollande says France will end intervention only when stability returns to West African country.

Troops from a regional West African force are due to begin deploying within a week, the French prime minister has said.

Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Tuesday in Paris that the looming deployment meant French forces would not have to bear the burden of fighting in Mali for very long.

“France is today in the vanguard, but within a week African forces will start to deploy on the ground,” he said.

Ayrault’s comments come as President Francois Hollande said France will end its intervention in Mali only when stability has returned to the West African country.

“We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory,” Hollande said in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. 

His comments raise the prospects of a costly, drawn-out operation against the al-Qaeda-linked rebels in northern Mali.

France has deployed 750 soldiers to the country and defence sources said it planned to boost its presence to a total of 2,500 troops.

The United States is still assessing what military aid to give France, but has no plans to send US troops, defence secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday.

“There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time,” Panetta told a news conference in Lisbon.

Deployment details

West African army chiefs meanwhile met on Tuesday in Bamako to plan the roll-out of a UN-mandated, 3,300-strong regional intervention force in the former French colony. They plan to continue their talks on Wednesday.

“We are here today to speak about the engagement alongside our Malian brothers in arms, to liberate the north of Mali,” Ivory Coast army chief General Soumaila Bakayoko said at the talks.

Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, reporting from the capital, Bamako, said the military chiefs of the West African bloc of nations, ECOWAS, were still meeting over the details of the deployment.

“What we are hearing is that the military chiefs [of ECOWAS] are deliberating over the different aspects of this deployment,” he said.

“What they have announced is that the chief of the mission will be from Nigeria, and will lead around 3,300 troops.

“The forces will be supporting the French troops … but they will have to be trained first before they go to the north, because they have previously worked as peacekeepers.”

French warplanes have been hitting targets in various parts of Mali since Friday in support of Malian forces seeking to dislodge the rebels who last year seized control of its vast desert north and had advanced south.

Strongholds abandoned

The rebels have abandoned several key strongholds under the French onslaught.

“We brought a halt to the [rebel] offensive,” Ayrault said, though he warned that the rebels’ “determination remains intact”.

France’s National Assembly and senate on Tuesday each held a minute of silence in memory of a French helicopter pilot killed on Friday in Mali and another soldier killed Saturday in a failed attempt to rescue a French hostage held by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab in Somalia.

At a military memorial service for the pilot, 41-year-old Damien Boiteux, at the Les Invalides military monument, Ayrault praised his “exceptional courage” and said he had “died for France”.

“We pay homage to your commitment, that of a life devoted to the defence of our country. This commitment led to the ultimate sacrifice. It will not be forgotten,” Ayrault said.