West Africa leaders discuss Mali crisis

Ivory Coast meeting aims to fast-track deployment of African troops to aid French-backed offensive against Mali rebels.

West African and French leaders are gathering for an emergency summit in Ivory Coast to fast-track the deployment of African troops to boost a French-backed offensive in Mali against rebel fighters.

Saturday’s meeting in the port city of Abidjan comes after Malian soldiers, backed by French troops and air power, retook a key central town from rebels who had advanced from their northern stronghold, threatening the capital Bamako.

Meanwhile, rebel group Ansar Dine revealed that a French airstrike hit one of their vehicles killing two of their fighters as they were attempting to leave the town of Diabaly, Al Jazeera’s correspondent Nazanine Moshiri, in Bamako, said.

“There are reports the rebels are leaving their pick ups and other vehicles and moving on foot with the civilians in an attempt to avoid French airstrikes,” our correspondent said

France, which began the military operation codenamed “Serval” after Konna fell to rebel fighters on January 11, will be represented at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) meeting by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

“I will go there with a military attache and we will see with our African friends how we can speed up the deployment of MISMA,” or the International Mission for Mali Assistance, Fabius told the AFP news agency.

French-African coalition

France has already put nearly two-thirds of the 2,500 troops it has pledged on the ground in Mali, amid its fears that the vast arid north which the rebels control could become a haven for armed groups and threaten security both in the region and overseas.

ECOWAS has pledged to aid the French effort with a total of about 5,800 troops. But only about 100 have actually reached Mali.

Oil-rich Chad, whose battle-hardened soldiers are experienced in fending off rebel attacks on their territory, and have been deployed in neighbouring countries such as the Central African Republic, has promised 2,000 troops.

Regional powerhouse Nigeria subsequently promised to boost its troop allotment for Mali from a planned 900 to 1,200 soldiers.

Chadian leader Idriss Deby Itno is due to attend the summit along with Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s interim president.

“The war has been forced by the refusal of the criminal movements and terrorists of the offers of peace,” ECOWAS President Desire Kadre Ouedraogo said, highlighting the urgency to “accelerate the deployment of MISMA”.

The office of the president of Burkina Faso, Mali’s southeastern neighbour, said the summit will “review the security situation before charting out new directions for the speedy deployment of west African troops”.

The African deployment follows a UN resolution. It was originally envisaged that Western powers including France would provide logistical support to an African-led force but it is now clear that French troops will be at the frontline of operations.

Refugee crisis

Meanwhille, concerns about the humanitarian situation in landlocked Mali have mounted with a UN agency voicing fear that fighting could displace 700.000 more people in the coming months.

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The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also it had received reports of horrific abuses being committed in Mali.

UNHCR staff members are relaying stories of “witnessed executions and amputations,” and tales of large offers of money to civilians who will fight against the French-backed Malian army and its supporters, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on Friday.

Reports of the use of child soldiers among the rebel groups, and disappeared family members, also are surfacing, she said.

The accounts were recounted by some of the 265 Malian refugees who crossed into Burkina Faso in the past several days from Intahaka, N’Tillit and Dorage towns, and surrounding areas in the Gao region of northern Mali.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies