The first contingent of an African force being deployed in Mali has begun moving towards the centre of the country, where French troops are seeking to help Mali's army push back Islamist fighters, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday.
"A certain number of (African) forces have already started to move towards central towns," Fabius told a parliamentary committee.
Fabius said a total of 1,000 troops from West African countries had been deployed in the Malian capital Bamako. These are in addition to around 500 soldiers from Chad who have been based in Niger.
He did not specify how many of these troops were moving towards the frontline of the conflict. Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Togo all already have troops in Bamako.
Fabius said the soldiers from Chad would be very important. "They have proven qualities and they know the terrain," he said.
France has been pushing for months for the deployment of an African force but was forced to send its own troops in a vanguard role after Islamists seized the central town of Konna earlier this month, raising fears Bamako could be vulnerable to attack.
"The African force is deploying much faster than expected," Fabius said. "Obviously that poses a number of logistical difficulties but I have to say that I have seen a very big effort by our African friends."
The UN has authorised the deployment of a 3,300-strong force under the auspices of West African grouping ECOWAS. But the involvement of Chad, which has committed up to 2,000 troops, means the force could now be much bigger.
France has already deployed 2,300 troops to Mali and defence officials acknowledge the force is likely to exceed the 2,500 men that was initially presented as the upper limit.
France initially portrayed its involvement in Mali as limited to halting the rebel advance, primarily involving the use of airpower and likely to be limited to a matter of weeks.
But the objectives of the campaign have since been broadened to helping the Malian army retake control of the north of the country, a task military strategists warn will be extremely risky and complex in an area bigger than France.
Faced with mounting criticism over this issue from the centre-right opposition, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Wednesday attempted to reassure parliament.
"France will pursue its engagement but it is not our intention to remain in the north of Mali," Ayrault said.
© 2013 AFP
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