France, Africa seeks support for regional Mali force
ABIDJAN/NIONO, Mali (Reuters) - France and West African leaders called on Saturday on other world powers to commit money and logistical support for African armies readying their troops to join French soldiers already battling al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali.
The appeal came as African leaders met in Ivory Coast to hammer out details of a regional mission that is due to take over from French forces but is dispatching soldiers while still short of financing, planning and even ammunition.
France has deployed ground troops and its war planes have bombed rebel columns and bases, halting an Islamist advance. The intervention aims to stop militants from tightening their grip on Mali's northern desert zone and using it as a springboard for attacks in Africa and on the West.
"Today you have both France and some elements of the Malian army. They are doing the job, because if they had not done the job, there would no longer be a free country called Mali," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at the summit.
"Terrorism would be there," he added.
Fabius said French troops were not intended to replace the African operation and he called on donors to make commitments to the mission at a January 29 conference in Ethiopia.
The French intervention halted a lightening rebel push last week. But Human Rights Watch said on Saturday that the group had subsequently received reports of serious abuses, including killings, being committed by Malian security forces against civilians around the central town of Niono, near the frontline.
The stakes rose dramatically this week when Islamist gunmen cited the French intervention as a pretext to attack a desert gas plant in neighbouring Algeria and seize hostages. Algeria's army carried out a "final assault" on Saturday to end a siege in which it said 23 hostages - many of them believed to be foreigners - and 32 militants were killed.
Amid fears there could be similar attacks elsewhere, African nations have accelerated their own planned mission to Mali, which was originally not expected before September.
Mali's north has been occupied by a mix of gunmen since rebels bolstered with weapons seized from Libya after the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi took up arms last year.
Separatist rebels who launched the fighting were soon sidelined by the Islamist alliance of al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM and home-grown Malian groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA.
Nigeria, Togo and Chad have started deploying troops and a statement after the summit said Benin, Ghana, Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast would also contribute.
France has some 2,000 troops in Mali, a number due to rise by 500 in coming weeks. A total of 5,000 African soldiers are expected to join them, up from the planned 3,300.
"We've seen very well equipped groups in terms of arms. So we need to take all the necessary measures to stop them first and then to keep Mali secure," said Djibrill Bassole, Burkina Faso's foreign minister.
"The phenomena we've seen in Algeria could occur anywhere."
Western diplomats say the desire to help was there but it was still not clear what African nations needed and how it would be funded.
"The troops are meant to go with 10-day self-sufficiency. But there's nothing in place to say what happens after," one diplomat said. "Who's going to pay for this, and what mechanisms are going to pay for it? The money is a big question."
WAITING FOR AMMUNITION
Underscoring the scale of the challenge, two other diplomats said Senegal's deployment was being held up by the lack of ammunition for their artillery. "They are waiting for it to be delivered," said one.
The bombing of a rebel column by French war planes and helicopters has halted an advance towards the central towns of Mopti and Sevare. Air raids and the deployment of French ground troops have helped Mali's disorganised army fight back.
The town of Konna was seized back from the insurgents earlier this week, but there were conflicting reports on Saturday about the situation in another town, Diabaly.
Malian military sources said French and Malian forces had entered Diabaly after it was abandoned by the insurgents on Friday following a number of French air strikes.
However, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said there were no Malian or French soldiers in Diabaly, and dismissed media reports of hand-to-hand fighting there.
To the south, residents in Niono remain anxious despite French troops, armour and supply trucks rolling through towns and villages. Malian security forces man checkpoints to prevent infiltration by rebels.
At the local hospital, several people ducked for cover and some ran indoors when two French jets sped past.
PAUSE IN OPERATIONS
A Malian officer said that there would be a pause in operations as Malian and French forces awaited the deployment of the African regional mission.
"We are waiting for them to get here before we launch a bigger and wide-ranging offensive," he said.
Human Rights Watch said that Tuaregs and Arabs, ethnic groups most associated with the rebels, were being targeted by Malian forces following the Islamists' retreat.
"We urge the Malian authorities, as well as the French and (West African) soldiers/authorities to do their utmost to ensure the protection of all civilians," the New York-based organisation said in a statement. Malian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Western troops had sought to avoid directly intervening in Mali but Paris said the speed of the Islamist advance and weakness of Mali's defences gave them no choice.
President Francois Hollande said France's military intervention would last as long as it takes to "vanquish terrorism" in the region.
"This is not about us conquering territory or boosting our influence, or serving some form of trade or economic interest. That era is over," Hollande said.
"However, France must come to help to a friend country, one of the poorest in the world, which has been a victim for too many months, not to say years, of an ever more dreadful form of terrorism."
Military experts say France and its African allies must now capitalise on a week of hard-hitting air strikes by preventing the insurgents from regrouping in the desert.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Brian Love in Paris and Bate Felix in Niono; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Myra MacDonald)
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