Donor nations pledged $455 million for an African force to help clear northern Mali of Islamist militants and the U.K. and Germany offered more support for the mission as Malian forces patrolled the streets of Timbuktu.
The funding came as Western allies expand military capacity in the region. U.S. officials said they reached an agreement yesterday with Niger, which is on Mali’s eastern border, allowing deployment of American military personnel and possibly drones to combat Islamist militants across the region.
A French armored unit seized Timbuktu’s airport, about 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) from the town center, while the French military’s first operational airdrop in more than 30 years placed paratroopers north of Timbuktu to prevent Islamist units from escaping.
“We are in control of Timbuktu and we are making sure the city is safe and secure for all,” Mali military spokesman Colonel Diarran Kone said today by telephone.
A meeting in Addis Ababa, organized by the African Union and attended by Malian President Dioncounda Traore and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, today received pledges of $455.5 million for an African-led Mali force with funds coming from the U.S., the European Union and France. Japan will spend $120 million on Mali refugees and security.
At least 8,000 African troops are needed for the mission, along with combat helicopters, transport and reconnaissance planes, General Soumaila Bakayoko, chairman of the chiefs of staff in the Economic Community of West African States, told reporters today in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the current chairman of Ecowas, said the mission would cost $950 million.
The force will be composed of about 5,500 troops from West African nations and more than 2,000 from Chad, Bakayoko said.
“French troops can help, but it belongs to African troops to ensure the bulk of the task and to ensure long-lasting security for Mali,” Fabius told reporters in Addis Ababa. “It’s not our intention to stay a very long time in Mali.”
The British government is ready to expand its assistance for the French and African troops fighting in Mali, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman said today.
Britain is ready to offer a roll-on roll-off ferry to help transport French military vehicles to Mali, to supply as many as 40 personnel for an EU training force in the West African country, and to offer as many as 200 trainers to be stationed in countries elsewhere in the region, spokesman Jean-Christophe Gray told reporters in London.
The German government will supply trucks for Mali’s army, a field hospital and flak jackets, the German Foreign Ministry said today in an e-mailed statement. Germany has already deployed two Transall transport planes to assist France.
French military engineers are clearing runway obstacles that retreating militants left at Timbuktu’s airport, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said in a press conference yesterday.
Fighting alongside Malian and African forces, the French on Jan. 16 captured another northern town, Gao, about 590 miles (950 kilometers) north of Bamako, according to France’s Defense Ministry, giving the French and Malian forces full control of the Niger River valley, the lifeline of northern Mali. Niger and Chadian troops were airlifted into Gao’s airport.
The last of three large northern cities the rebels still control is Kidal. French jets bombed positions around Kidal on Jan. 26, Burkhard said.
Some French newspapers such as Le Figaro have reported that Kidal is under the control of Tuareg groups that are willing to cooperate with international forces to expel jihadist groups from northern Mali, before negotiating regional autonomy from the Bamako-based government.
“The military part of driving the rebels out was the easy part,” said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s center in Brussels and a former analyst at the German Defense Ministry and NATO Defense College.
“Now comes the hard part. How can this be made sustainable? Can the vacuum be filled by the Malian government, by the French or by troops from surrounding countries?” he said in a telephone interview. “Mali’s government was just days from being ousted by the Islamist militants and the neighbors have been timid, so I have my doubts.”
French warplanes destroyed pickup trucks used by the militants, and French special forces killed 15 militants in a “brief but violent” firefight to seize a bridge in Gao over the weekend, Burkhard said. Otherwise, French and Malian forces have faced little resistance, presumably because militants fled before their advance.
Britain has sent a Sentinel surveillance plane to help the French track the militants in an area larger than France.
“After the battle in the big towns, it’s now a question of tracking them in the desert, and for that the Sentinel is very good,” British Ambassador to France Peter Ricketts said today on Europe1 radio. “We know the capabilities of the French army, it’s not over yet, which is why we want to aid France with logistics and training.”
U.S. planes refueled French jets during their attacks over the weekend, the French say.
France intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 after Islamist fighters overran the town of Konna, sparking concern they might advance to the capital, Bamako. European and U.S. leaders have said that northern Mali had turned into a haven for Islamist militants intent on attacking Western targets.
Several insurgent groups, including Tuareg separatists and al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, seized northern Mali last year, after a March coup in the capital.
Mali vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-largest producer of gold, with AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. (ANG) and Randgold Resources Ltd. (RRS) among the companies operating in the country. It ranks 175th of 187 nations on the UN Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.
The International Monetary Fund said yesterday it approved a disbursement of about $18.4 million to Mali under the rapid credit facility “to support the authorities with policy advice and financial support to maintain macroeconomic stability and growth during the next 12 months.”
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