BAMAKO, Mali: After a punishing bombing campaign failed to halt the advance of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, France pledged yesterday to send hundreds more troops into Mali as it prepared for a land assault to dislodge the militants occupying the northern half of the country.
The move reversed France’s earlier insistence on providing only aerial and logistical support for a military intervention lead by African ground troops.
France plunged headfirst into the conflict in its former colony last week, bombarding the insurgents’ desert stronghold in an effort to shatter the militant’s domination of a region many fear could become a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
But despite five days of airstrikes, the rebels have extended their reach, taking over a strategically important military camp in the central Malian town of Diabaly on Monday.
On Tuesday, France announced it was tripling the number of soldiers in Mali from 800 to 2,500. The offensive was to have been led by thousands of African troops pledged by Mali’s neighbors, but they have yet to arrive, making it increasingly apparent that France will be leading the attack and not playing a supporting role.
French President Francois Hollande told RFI radio early Tuesday that he believed France could succeed in ousting the extremists in a week. But by afternoon he had outlined a far longer-term commitment.
“We have one objective: To make sure that when we leave, when we end this intervention, there is security in Mali, legitimate leaders, an electoral process and the terrorists no longer threaten its territory,” he said during a stop in the United Arab Emirates.
“We are confident about the speed with which we will be able to stop the aggressors, the enemy, these terrorists,” he added.
Supplies for the French forces arrived in a steady stream Tuesday, part of the enormous logistics operation needed to support thousands of troops in the baking Sahara sun, a terrain the rebels have operated in for nearly a decade.
Transport planes bringing military hardware landed in quick succession on the short airstrip: A giant Antonov, two C-17 Boeings and a C-160 disgorged equipment in preparation for a land offensive to try to seize back the northern territory held since March by a trio of rebel groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Burly French troops in fatigues carried boxes of munitions as armored personnel carriers lined up at the airport’s gasoline pump. Roughly 40 armored vehicles were driven in overnight by French soldiers stationed in Ivory Coast.
A convoy of French armored cars was spotted late Tuesday heading toward Diabaly, the strategic town seized by the rebels a day earlier, said a resident of the nearby town of Segou, who declined to be named out of fears for her safety.
The rebels appeared to be mostly equipped with Russian-made machine guns and other small arms, said a French army adjutant who gave only his first name, Nicolas, in keeping with military regulations. But, he added, the French force would not underestimate the insurgents. On the first day of the operation, a French helicopter gunship was downed by rebel fire.