African leaders discuss speedy deployment of troops to Mali

January 19, 2013 - 1:46:22 pm
BAMAKO: West African leaders and France were poised to meet Saturday at an emergency summit in Ivory Coast to fast track the deployment of African troops and boost a French-backed offensive in Mali against Islamist rebels.

The meeting in the port city of Abidjan comes after Malian soldiers, backed by French troops and air power, retook a key central town from rebels swooping down from their northern stronghold and threatening the capital Bamako.

France, which began the military operation codenamed Serval after Konna fell to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters on January 11, will be represented by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

"I will go there with a military attache and we will see with our African friends how we can speed up the deployment of MISMA," or the International Mission for Mali Assistance, Fabius told AFP.

France has already put nearly two-thirds of the 2,500 troops it has pledged on the ground in Mali, amid fears that the vast arid north which the rebels control could become a haven for Islamist militants and threaten security both in the region and overseas.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has pledged to boost the French effort with a total of about 5,800 troops. But only about a 100 have actually reached Mali.

Oil-rich Chad, whose battle-hardened soldiers are experienced in fending off rebel attacks on their territory and have been deployed in neighbouring countries such as the Central African Republic, has promised 2,000 troops.

Regional powerhouse Nigeria subsequently promised to boost its troop allotment for Mali from a planned 900 to 1,200 soldiers.

Chadian leader Idriss Deby Itno is due to attend the summit along with Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore.

"The war has been forced by the refusal of the criminal movements and terrorists of the offers of peace," ECOWAS president Desire Kadre Ouedraogo said, highlighting the urgency to "accelerate the deployment of MISMA."

The office of the president of Burkina Faso, Mali's southeastern neighbour, said the summit will "review the security situation before charting out new directions for the speedy deployment of west African troops."

The African deployment follows a United Nations resolution. It was originally envisaged that Western powers including France would provide logistical support to an African-led force but it is now clear that French troops will be at the frontline of operations.

Concerns about the humanitarian situation in landlocked Mali have mounted with UN agencies voicing fear that fighting could displace hundreds of thousands in the coming months.

Bamako's Archbishop Jean Zerbo said a "new period of suffering has begun for the Malian people" and called for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to transport food and medicines to the affected populations.

"The winter season... makes the humanitarian situation much more complicated."

The International Monetary Fund warned that the conflict in Mali, which has extended to a hostage crisis at a natural gas field in Algeria, posed a risk to the region's economies.

"It is certainly a source of vulnerability for the neighboring economies," Masood Ahmed, the head of the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia affairs, said at a news briefing.

Ahmed said the economies of the Sahel, a region of north-central Africa south of the Sahara Desert, were "likely to be affected" by the battle between Islamist insurgents and the military forces of Mali and France. (AFP)