France, Africa seeks support for Mali force

Money and logistical support for armies reading their troops for Mali are needed.

French army soldiers stand on armoured vehicles as they leave Bamako and start their deployment to the north of Mali as part of the "Serval" operations on 15 January, 2013. Picture: AFP

ABIDJAN/NIONO, Mali - 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 29 January 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."