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January 15, 2013

France Continues Mali Air Strikes, Sends Tank Convoy North

by VOA News

A convoy of French tanks rolled out of Mali's capital Tuesday, heading to northern regions controlled by Islamist militants.
 
VOA correspondent Anne Look, who is on the ground in Bamako, says the tanks appear to be headed to join French military positions. France is building up its forces in Mali, sending in tanks and armored vehicles while carrying out new airstrikes against militants.
 
Look reports that 100 French vehicles arrived from neighboring Ivory Coast Tuesday, and that more troops are coming from Chad and France.
 
Meanwhile, witnesses say French warplanes attacked the town of Diabaly overnight, just hours after Islamist fighters took control of the area, 400 kilometers north of Bamako. Residents said Tuesday that the militants still hold the town.

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French defense officials say their military contingent in Mali will gradually rise to 2,500. Nigeria says it will deploy its first troops to Mali by Wednesday, part of a planned West African coalition force to help Mali's army retake the north.
 
French President Francois Hollande said in Dubai Tuesday that French forces will stay in Mali until the situation is stabilized.
 
Al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists seized control of northern Mali after renegade soldiers toppled the government in March, leaving a temporary power vacuum. Militants have imposed harsh conservative Islamic law across the north.
 
Western and United Nations officials are concerned the Islamists could turn Mali into a base for terrorists and criminals.

​​​​France deployed forces in Mali on Friday at the request from the country's interim government after Islamists began advancing southward. Mali is a former French colony and France still has a variety of economic and political interests there.
 
Hollande said France's goals are stopping terrorist aggression, securing Bamako, and allowing Mali to recover its territorial integrity. He also said France will support the African force that will soon be in Mali.
 
The West African bloc ECOWAS is speeding up its planned deployment to Mali for the same reason. ECOWAS communications director Sonny Ugoh said officials sense the need to act quickly.

​​U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday the United States supports French efforts in Mali but is not sending troops.
 
The United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday that the latest clashes have driven more than 1,000 Malians into neighboring countries. It says the total number of Malian refugees in the region now stands at 144,000, and that more than 200,000 Malians are displaced within the country.

VOA's Anne Look contributed to this report.