January 16, 2013
France Begins Ground Operations in Mali
French and Malian forces have converged on the town of Diabaly, which Islamist militants who control northern Mali seized earlier this week.
A reporter for VOA's French to Africa Service spoke to a resident of Diabaly, who says Malian army personnel have surrounded the town. French media reports say French special forces are also present and that fighting in Diabaly is underway.
On Tuesday, French warplanes conducted airstrikes on the town, located 400 kilometers north of the capital, Bamako.
VOA correspondent Anne Look reports from Bamako that the city remains calm despite fears that groups of Islamist fighters are moving southward.
"You continue hearing reports of Islamist rebels infiltrated Segou, which is near Diabaly," she says. "And also I spoke with the military police at Koulikoro, which is a military base about 55 kilometers outside Bamako, and they said they have been out on patrols looking for Islamists who are believed to have infriltrated further south. It appears to be life as usual for now in Bamako."
Meanwhile, the U.S. military says it is providing air transport and in-air refueling for the operation in Mali. U.S. officials have repeatedly said the U.S. is not involved in the fighting.
France sent troops into Mali on Friday at the request of the country's interim government, as Islamist fighters began an offensive. France says it will eventually deploy 2,500 soldiers who will stay in Mali until the situation is stable.
Nigeria deployed its first 190 soldiers to Mali on Wednesday. The soldiers are the vanguard of a projected a 3,300-troop West African force authorized by the United Nations to help combat the militants.
Al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists seized control of northern Mali after renegade soldiers toppled the government in March, leaving a temporary power vacuum. The militants have imposed harsh conservative Islamic law across the north.
Western and United Nations officials are concerned that the Islamists could turn Mali into a base for terrorists and criminals.
Mali is a former French colony and France still has a variety of economic and political interests there.
President Francois Hollande says France's goals are stopping terrorist aggression, securing Bamako, and allowing Mali to recover its territorial integrity. He also says France will support the African force that soon will be in Mali.
The West African bloc ECOWAS is speeding up its planned deployment to Mali, which had not been expected until September.