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Mali troops plan approved

West African army chiefs to approve Mali plan to speed up deployment.

A picture taken on April 24, 2012 shows Islamists rebels of Ansar Dine near Timbuktu, in rebel-held northern Mali. Picture: AFP

BAMAKO - West African defence chiefs will on Tuesday approve plans to speed up the deployment of African troops against Islamist rebels in northern Mali, with some regional soldiers seen arriving next week.

France has already poured hundreds of troops into Mali and carried out days of air strikes in a vast desert area seized last year by an Islamist alliance that combines al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM with Mali's home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine rebel groups.

Western and regional powers are concerned the insurgents will use Mali's north as a launchpad for international attacks.

"On January 15, the committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff will meet in Bamako to approve the contingency plan," the mission head of the ECOWAS grouping of West African states, Aboudou Toure Cheaka, told Reuters.

"I can tell you that in one week, the troops will effectively be on the ground," he said, adding their immediate mission would be to help stop the rebel advance while preparations for a full intervention plan continued.

He did not say how many soldiers would arrive.

The original timetable for the 3,300-strong UN-sanctioned African force - backed by western logistics, money and intelligence services - did not initially foresee full deployment before September due to logistical constraints.

Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Guinea have all offered troops. But regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that even if some troops arrive in Mali soon, training will take more time.

The plan is being fast-tracked after France rushed to respond to a plea for help by Mali's government after mobile columns of Islamist fighters last week threatened the central garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, with its key airport.

The French defence ministry said on Monday it aimed to deploy some 2,500 soldiers to Mali to bolster the Malian army and the eventual West African force.

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