U.S., Africa say Mali action counters growing Islamist threat

Wed Jan 23, 2013 1:17pm EST
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By Joe Penney and Richard Valdmanis

DIABALY/SEGOU, Mali (Reuters) - The United States and African leaders threw their full diplomatic weight on Wednesday behind a campaign to expel Islamist rebels from Mali, as French air strikes harried the al Qaeda-allied fighters in their strongholds.

For nearly two weeks, French jets and helicopters have been hitting carefully selected targets around rebel-held Malian towns such as Gao and Timbuktu, while African troops gather for a planned ground offensive against the Islamist forces.

Last week's bloody seizure of a gas plant in neighboring Algeria by Islamist guerrillas opposing the French action in Mali - in which at least 37 foreign hostages were killed - heightened fears in Africa and the West that Mali's north could become a launchpad for international attacks by al Qaeda.

After halting a surprise Islamist offensive southwards towards Mali's capital Bamako, French ground troops and Malian army soldiers backed by French armored vehicles are securing locations recaptured from the rebels in the last few days.

At one of these, Diabaly, a town of mud-brick homes 350 km (220 miles) north of Bamako, jubilant residents welcomed foreign reporters and showed them munitions abandoned by the fleeing Islamist fighters, including several six-foot long shells.

Charred rebel pick-up trucks destroyed by the French air strikes were also visible amid the mango trees.

The U.N.-mandated intervention in Mali was originally conceived as "African-led, African-owned", but with the Malian army in disarray and African neighbors scrambling to deploy troops, France has taken the lead in the operation.

Amid widening international support for the Mali operation, the European Union is preparing a 450-member mission to help train the Malian army while the United States and European governments are helping fly in French troops and equipment.   Continued...

A convoy of French military vehicles drive on a road outside Markala, Mali, January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney (MALI - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY CONFLICT)