ABIDJAN— France’s foreign minister has called on African forces to take the lead in the military campaign against Islamist rebels occupying northern Mali. But a highly anticipated meeting Saturday in the Ivorian capitol, Abidjan, featuring heads of state from the West African regional body ECOWAS ended without any major announcements about the African deployment.
ECOWAS leaders have been meeting for the better part of a year to come with a plan to oust the Islamists from northern Mali. The Islamists took control of the north not long after a military coup in the landlocked country last March.
But earlier this month, it was France that intervened after the Islamists began a push toward the southern capital of Bamako. Although ECOWAS almost immediately promised to send troops of its own, few have actually arrived, and fundamental questions about the financing and execution of the African deployment remain unanswered.
At a press conference on the sidelines of Saturday’s summit, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said African armies would need to “take the lead,” but he acknowledged it could be weeks before they are in a position to do so.
"Now, we shall have in the coming days more and more African troops coming directly in Bamako and in different places in Mali," said Fabius. "And step by step they will deploy. On the other hand, Europe has decided to train the Malian army because the Malian army is both committed and acting in the combat, but at the same time they have to be trained and equipped in a better way. Step by step, I think it's a question from what I heard this morning of some days, some weeks, the African troops will take over," he said.
Some analysts had predicted further troop commitments, but little news was announced at the close of Saturday’s summit, and organizers canceled a scheduled press conference.
The final communique, read aloud by ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, praised an earlier pledge by Chad to provide some 2,000 troops to the Mali mission, and asked other African countries to become involved.
Both Fabius and African leaders urged countries from around the world to help launch the African deployment to Mali. A conference for donors is scheduled to be held January 29 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.