France sends troops to Mali in preparation for land war

A motorcyclist waves his support as French troops ride in an armored personnel carrier through Mali's capital, Bamako, on the road to Mopti. French air strikes have failed to halt the advance of Islamist rebels.
A motorcyclist waves his support as French troops ride in an armored personnel carrier through Mali's capital, Bamako, on the road to Mopti. French air strikes have failed to halt the advance of Islamist rebels. (JEROME DELAY / AP)
Posted: January 17, 2013

BAMAKO, Mali - After a punishing bombing campaign failed to halt the advance of al-Qaeda-linked fighters, France pledged Tuesday to triple the size of its force in Mali, sending in hundreds more troops 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 led by African ground troops.

France plunged headfirst into the conflict in its former colony last week, bombarding the insurgents' training camps, arms depots and safe houses in an effort to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a magnet for extremists from around the world.

Despite five days of air strikes 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 increasing the number of troops 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 rather than playing a supporting role.

On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta reiterated the Obama administration's position, saying no American troops would be sent.

French President Francois Hollande told RFI radio early Tuesday that he believed France could succeed in ousting the extremists in a week.

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," 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 Islamists have operated in for nearly a decade.

Transport planes bringing military hardware landed in quick succession on the short airstrip.

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