JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — France boosted its troops in Mali on Tuesday as armored vehicles arrived in the capital, Bamako, part of a planned 2,500-strong deployment to battle al-Qaida-linked militants.
France currently has around 750 troops in Mali, said President Francois Hollande, who outlined plans to more than triple the French force to help destroy al-Qaida-linked groups in northern Mali and restore the West African nation’s territorial integrity and political stability.
“We have one goal,” Hollande said at a news conference in the United Arab Emirates: “To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.”
France, the former colonial power in Mali and other parts of West Africa, fears al-Qaida has been building a haven capable of devastating terrorist strikes against Europe and particularly against the French.
France launched airstrikes Friday and sent in special forces to support Mali’s ill-equipped and poorly trained army, following a request for help from Malian authorities facing rebel advances.
French warplanes continued to bomb rebel targets overnight and French media reported Tuesday that Islamist fighters had abandoned the key towns of Gao and Timbuktu.
Defense chiefs representing the regional Economic Community of West African States met in Bamako to discuss plans to send in a 3,300-troop regional force, some 900 of whom are to come from Nigeria.
Hollande said French troops would remain in Mali until African forces could ensure stability.
“As soon as there is an African force, in the coming days or weeks, that is backed by the international community and by Europe, France will not have a reason to stay in Mali,” Hollande said.
Hollande said France took action to prevent the militants from seizing Bamako and controlling the entire country. He said the French operation would secure the capital, where thousands of French citizens reside, and “enable Mali to retake its territory, a mission that has been entrusted to an African force that France will support.”
A French official told AFP the French forces would “gradually” reach 2,500, deployed from French bases in the region, including Ivory Coast, Chad and Bukino Faso.
The Mali crisis had its roots in the fall of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya, which triggered a flood of battle-hardened fighters into Mali who launched a rebellion, initially led by Tuaregs, to set up an independent state in the north.
The Malian military struggled to contain the rebellion and were angered by what they saw as the government’s failure to equip and support the army. A group led by army captain Amadou Sanogo led a coup and toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure.
Rebels took advantage of the coup to sweep across the north, seizing the towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu in a matter of days. The Tuaregs were swiftly outflanked by al-Qaida-linked militias that took control and imposed severe Islamic law, meting out floggings, amputations and stonings, banning music, smoking and alcohol, and destroying World Heritage mausoleums in Timbuktu.
The West African regional body’s forces had not expected to go into Mali until late this year, but the rebels’ thrust toward Sevare in central Mali, a town with the only major airport capable of landing large cargo planes outside Bamako, triggered a swift French intervention. Questions have been raised about how battle-ready the ECOWAS troops are as they face well-armed troops used to harsh desert combat.
Mali expert Gregory Mann of Columbia University wrote in the “Africa is a Country” blog that France’s intervention was necessary to turn back the rebel advance southward.