France stepped up its military intervention in Mali on Tuesday when it deployed armored cars and hundreds of ground forces to the African country after another night of airstrikes that targeted Islamist insurgents in the north.
With minimal support from the United Kingdom, which committed two transport aircraft to the operation, France has carried out attacks in Mali since Friday to halt a rebel advance on the capital Bamako. West African defense officials met there on Tuesday to discuss plans to speed up their own deployment of soldiers to Mali. More than 3,000 troops from neighboring countries are scheduled to support the French offensive and suppress an Islamist and Tuareg insurgency in the north of France’s former colony.
Rafale fighter jets are operating out of France itself as well as N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Attack helicopters operate from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. A column of French armored vehicles rumbled into Bamako overnight, driven up from a French base in Côte d’Ivoire.
President François Hollande said in the United Arab Emirates that France had deployed 750 troops to Mali “and that will keep increasing so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans.” Hollande said that he expected West African states to be able to deploy a peacekeeping force within a week. His foreign minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday that France’s involvement in the campaign will last “a matter of weeks.”
France decided to intervene on its own last week when northern rebels captured the town of Konna on the de facto border with the south which is still controlled by the government. With French air support, the Malian army was able to push back the insurgents.
Western powers fear that the Islamist uprising in the north of Mali will provide a breeding ground for terrorist attacks elsewhere in Africa as well as in Europe. While different factions form part of the insurgency, one is linked to Al Qaeda, the international terrorist network that carried out attacks on the United States in 2001. Another is the Tuareg Ansar Dine, also Islamist but part of a broader Tuareg secessionist movement that seeks independence from Bamako. The uprising is further supported by fighters and mercenaries that were once employed by the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi and fled to Mali when he was toppled with Arab and Western air support in 2011.