African Force to Take Over Mali Fighting in ‘Weeks,’ France Says

An African force will be ready to engage in combat in Mali “within weeks,” France’s defense minister said, as French air strikes continued and French forces continued to arrive in the sub-Saharan country.

France has about 1,700 troops committed to the Mali mission, with about 800 in Mali itself, and will add to its forces, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a press conference in Paris yesterday.

Mali’s army was “badly damaged” in combat with Islamist militants last week, Le Drian said, suggesting that French forces may take over some ground fighting as well. While France so far has used warplanes and helicopters to support Malian forces, a French light tank company that’s arrived from the Ivory Coast will engage the militants “if needed,” he said.

The French military began air strikes on Jan. 11 to repel Islamist rebels who had taken control of much of northern Mali last year and launched an offensive last week toward Bamako, the capital. The fighting prompted thousands to flee to neighboring countries and cities in the south, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

West African defense chiefs met in Bamako yesterday as countries including Ghana, Togo, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria pledged to send troops for the regional mission. Nigeria said it would send 190 troops within 24 hours, with the remaining 710 soldiers of its contingent arriving next week.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Major-General Shehu Abdulkadir, the Nigerian head of the regional force, told reporters. “Once the planning is properly conducted and you have the logistics support that you require, I believe it’s not an insurmountable problem.” West African heads of government will meet Jan. 19 in Abidjan.

Kona Recapture

Malian forces have yet to retake the central town of Kona, which fell to rebels last week before being abandoned after the French air strikes, Le Drian said.

French aircraft have flown about 50 sorties since their intervention last week, and strikes are continuing, especially in the west of the country, he said. Two Dassault Aviation SA F1 Mirages are stationed in Bamako, with six Mirage 2000’s and four Rafales running missions from Chad, according to the Defense Ministry.

France intervened in Mali to “defend the integrity” of the country, and isn’t defending any economic interests, President Francois Hollande said earlier today.

“This has nothing to do with the practices of another era,” Hollande said at a press conference in Dubai. “France has no other interests to defend in Mali. What companies?”

“Our goal is that when we leave, there will be security in Mali, a legitimate government, and no terrorists threatening the security of Mali,” he said.

Border Closed

Algeria has closed its 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) border with Mali, and is allowing French overflights, as is Morocco, Hollande said.

Germany said it may provide transport planes, with the United Arab Emirates considering humanitarian, material and financial help, Hollande said. Belgium is sending two transport planes and medical helicopter. British transport planes are already ferrying French material to the region.

The landlocked nation vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer. At least 13 international companies were engaged in gold exploration and production in Mali in 2010, according to a U.S. Geological Survey Report. Output of the metal for the country was 36,344 kilograms the same year.

Political Instability

The rebels exploited political instability in Bamako after a March coup to seize control of the north. While the insurgents include Islamists such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s north African unit, there are also ethnic Touareg fighters seeking greater autonomy in the region.

Mali is now led by interim President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of a coup in March, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.

The country ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.

Its $10.6 billion economy contracted 4.5 percent last year and is forecast to expand 3 percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund, slower than the sub-Saharan African outlook of 5.25 percent.

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