France to stay in Mali until stability restored

Tue Jan 15, 2013 5:27pm EST
 
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By Bate Felix and Elizabeth Pineau

BAMAKO/DUBAI (Reuters) - France pledged on Tuesday to keep troops in Mali until stability returned to the West African country, raising the specter of a long campaign against al Qaeda-linked rebels who held their ground despite a fifth day of air strikes.

Paris has poured hundreds of soldiers into Mali and carried out 50 bombing raids since Friday in the Islamist-controlled northern half of the country, which Western and regional states fear could become a base for terrorist attacks in Africa and Europe.

Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that, despite French air support, Malian forces had not been able to dislodge Islamist fighters from the central Malian towns of Konna or Diabaly, just 350 km (220 miles) northeast of Bamako.

A column of French armored vehicles rolled northward from the dusty riverside capital of Bamako towards rebel lines on Tuesday, the first major northward deployment of ground troops. A military official declined to comment on their objective.

Thousands of African soldiers are due to take over the offensive. Regional armies are scrambling to accelerate an operation which was initially not expected until September and has been brought forward by France's surprise bombing campaign aimed at stopping a rebel advance on a strategic town last week.

President Francois Hollande, on a visit to the United Arab Emirates during which he sought Gulf states' financial backing for the African-led mission, suggested France would retain a major role in its former colony for months to come.

"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 told a news conference.

Paris has said it plans to deploy 2,500 soldiers to bolster the Malian army and work with the intervention force provided by West African states.   Continued...

 
French Elite Special Operations soldiers drive through the town of Markala, about 275 km (171 miles) from the capital Bamako, January 15, 2013, to meet Malian soldiers and organize a counter-attack in the jihadist-held town of Diabaly. REUTERS/Francois Rihouay (MALI - Tags: MILITARY CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CONFLICT)