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West African states to send troops to Mali

West African regional bloc ECOWAS will begin sending soldiers to Mali by tomorrow. Photo: Reuters

West African regional bloc ECOWAS will begin sending soldiers to Mali by tomorrow. Photo: Reuters

West African states prepared to send troops to Mali and French aircraft bombed Islamist fighters there, as an international campaign to crush rebels who have seized the north of the country gathered pace.

A French pilot died on Friday when his helicopter was shot down near the central Mali town of Mopti. Hours later, in Somalia, a bid to rescue a French hostage held by Islamists failed and Paris said it believed the man had died in the raid.

The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has for months lobbied world powers to back its plan to end the nine-month occupation of Mali’s north by Islamist groups Ansar Dine, MUJWA, and AQIM, Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate.

Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara currently holds the rotating chairmanship of ECOWAS.

“The mandate for the deployment was signed by the President yesterday,” said Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast’s African Integration Minister.

“Monday by the latest, the troops will be there or will have started to arrive.”

Malian soldiers recaptured a central town on Friday after France intervened with air strikes to halt a southward advance by the Islamist insurgents.

Western governments, particularly former colonial power France, voiced alarm after the rebel alliance captured the town of Konna on Thursday in their first major drive towards the capital Bamako since seizing control of the north last spring.

Mali’s Government appealed for urgent military aid from France. The Islamist offensive also threatened the town of Sevare, home to a military base and a gateway on the route to Bamako, around 500 km to the south.

“Things are accelerating ... This is not a mission to simply protect Sevare. We need to retake the northern part (of Mali) from the jihadists,” Coulibaly said.

“The reconquest of the north has already begun.” French aircraft continued strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali yesterday.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French army units attacked a column of rebels heading towards Mopti. Le Drian said France had sent special forces into Mopti ahead of the intervention, to prepare the ground, and “several hundred” troops into the capital Bamako.

France had more Rafale fighter jets on standby to be deployed, Le Drian said. Army Chief Edouard Guillaud said however France had no current plans to extend operations to northern areas controlled by the Islamists.

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