Mali conflict: Nigerian troops lead West African contingent

France has increased its troop strength in Mali to 1,400 to help fight militant Islamists in the north, the French defence minister has said.

Close to 200 Nigerian troops are also due to arrive in Mali to join the military campaign.

In Brussels, the EU foreign ministers agreed to press ahead with sending a team to train the weak Malian army.

France said it launched military action in Mali last Friday to prevent it from becoming a “terrorist state”.

“The actions of French forces, be it air forces or ground forces, are ongoing,” France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday.

“They took place yesterday, they took place last night, they took place today, they will take place tomorrow.”

On Wednesday, French and Malian sources said their forces launched the first major ground operation against the militants, with street battles taking place in the town of Diabaly, 350km (220 miles) north of the capital Bamako.

But Diabaly’s mayor, Oumar Diakite, told the BBC from Bamako only Malian troops were involved in the battle.

Both sides suffered casualties, he said.

“The Islamists were burying their dead next to our cemetery in Diabaly. There were also three bodies of Malian soldiers lying on the side of the road,” Mr Diakite added.

“The residents wanted to take the bodies and bury them, but they [the militants] would not let us.”

‘Limited support’

Mr Diakite said French forces were in the nearby town of Niono.

“They are co-ordinating with the Malian army,” he said.

Well-armed Islamists entered Diabaly on Monday, taking the town from Malian forces.

French fighter jets have since attacked rebel positions.

France had some 800 troops on the ground in Mali, before the latest deployment.

Defence sources said their numbers were expected to increase to 2,500.

A company of 190 Nigerian soldiers will be flown from the northern city of Kaduna into Mali on Thursday, the BBC’s Will Ross in Kaduna reports.

It is the first West African contingent to join France’s anti-rebel operation.

Nigeria will lead the West African force. It has promised to send a total of 900 troops as well as fighter jets.

Chad has also confirmed 2,000 soldiers will join the anti-rebel operation in Mali.

Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged to take part.

In total, 3,300 regional troops will be deployed in the conflict under a UN Security Council resolution.

France has been pushing hard for the deployment of West African troops and the arrival of the first Nigerian troops should bring some relief to French soldiers who are only getting limited support from the fairly weak Malian army, our correspondent says.

It is not yet known exactly what role the West African troops will play or how well prepared they are for what is likely to be a very challenging ground assault against the Islamist militants, he adds.

The UK has provided transport planes, and on Wednesday Germany gave two transport planes as logistical support.

EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday to send a military training mission to Mali.

No combat role is envisaged for it.

“The threat of jihadi terrorists is something that should be a matter of great concern to all of us,” Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said, ahead of the meeting, Reuters news agency reports.

“And there is not one European country that can hide if this threat would present itself to the European continent.”

BBC News

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