African leaders seek global involvement in Mali

Christophe Koffi
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French soldiers stand with their equipment in front of a PUMA helicopter on January 19, 2013 near Bamako

French soldiers of the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment stand with their equipment in front of a PUMA helicopter on January 19, 2013 at the 101st airbase near Bamako. West African leaders Saturday urged more global involvement and funding as they met to speed up the deployment of regional troops in Mali and boost a French-backed offensive to halt an Islamist onslaught

West African leaders Saturday urged more global involvement to fight Islamists in Mali as President Francois Hollande said French troops would remain there as long as needed to "defeat terrorism".

At an emergency summit of West African leaders in Ivory Coast French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was time for the Africans to take charge of the task of halting the extremist onslaught "as soon as possible".

"France was obliged to intervene very, very rapidly, otherwise there would have been no more Mali," Fabius said in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's main city. "But it is well understood that it is the Africans that must pick up the baton.".

But Hollande, speaking in France, said: "I am often asked the question: how long will this last? I reply... 'As long as is necessary'. As long as is necessary so that terrorism can be defeated in that part of Africa."

A hostage crisis in neighbouring Algeria, which was sparked by the French intervention in Mali, ended Saturday with the Islamist gunmen killing all seven remaining foreign hostages before being gunned down by the Algerian army at a remote desert gas plant, state media said.

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who is also current head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc, said was high time others did their bit to help end the crisis.

"The hour has come for a broader commitment by the major powers and more countries and organisations to the military operations to show greater solidarity with France and Africa," he said.

"We must speed up the re-establishment of Mali's territorial integrity with the logistical support of our partners ... (and) go beyond our current deployment numbers," Ouattara said, calling for international financial support for African nations involved in the Mali effort.

Only about 100 African soldiers of a planned 5,800 force have so far reached Mali, while France said Saturday 2,000 French soldiers were now on the ground.

Fabius also said it was "imperative that the civil authorities in Mali take matters into their own hands," addressing interim president Dioncounda Traore, who also attended the summit.

The US State Department meanwhile called for "the departure of all dependent family members who are not employed at the US Embassy in Bamako for a period of up to 30 days."

It cited the "ongoing fighting in northern and central Mali, fluid political conditions, the loss of government control of Mali’s Northern provinces, and continuing threats of attacks and kidnappings of Westerners."

Malian soldiers, backed by French troops and air power, retook the key central town of Konna on Thursday from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who had swooped down more than a week ago and threatened the capital Bamako.

There were conflicting reports on another town Diabaly, which the Malian army claimed was recaptured but this was effectively denied by the French defence ministry.

The French presence has been a lifeline for Mali's ill-equipped and demoralised soldiers, struggling to fight an amalgam of Islamist and Tuareg rebel groups.

The Malian army proved no match for Tuareg separatist rebels who took them by surprise when they relaunched a decades-old rebellion in January last year.

As anger rose over their defeats, a group of soldiers overthrew the government in Bamako in a disastrous coup which only made it easier for the Tuareg and their new Islamist allies to seize the vast arid north.