Chadians advance in Mali troop moves against Islamists

Tue Jan 22, 2013 6:03pm EST
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By Abdoulaye Massalatchi and Richard Valdmanis

NIAMEY/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Chadian forces advanced towards the Mali border on Tuesday as an African troop deployment and a U.S. military airlift swelled international support for French operations against Islamist rebels occupying the north of Mali.

The aim of the intervention is to prevent northern Mali from becoming a launchpad for international attacks by al Qaeda and its local allies in North and West Africa. Fears of this increased sharply after a hostage-taking raid by Islamist militants last week on a gas plant in Algeria.

Military experts say the swift and effective deployment of African forces is crucial to sustain the momentum of a French air campaign against the Islamists and prevent them melting away into empty desert or rugged mountains near the Algerian border.

An armored column of Chadian troops, experienced in desert operations, rumbled north from the Niger capital Niamey on the road to Ouallam, some 100 km (60 miles) from Mali's frontier, where Nigerien units are already poised to cross.

France, which launched air strikes in Mali 11 days ago to stymie a surprise Islamist offensive toward the capital Bamako, has urged a swift deployment of the planned U.N.-mandated African force to back up its 2,150 soldiers already there.

The number of French troops could be boosted to more than 3,000 in the coming days and weeks, a source with knowledge of the matter said on Tuesday.

An entry into Mali from Niger by part of the African force would widen the front of operations against the Islamist alliance in the north that groups al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM and the Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA.

On Monday, French and Malian armored columns moved into the towns of Diabaly and Douentza in central Mali after the rebels who had seized them fled into the bush to avoid air strikes.   Continued...

French soldiers carry their equipment after arriving on a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at the airport in Bamako January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard