French President Francois Hollande, on a visit to the Gulf, Tuesday defended his country's intervention in Mali, saying it had prevented the African country from being overrun by "terrorists".
Speaking to reporters as he arrived at Peace Camp in Abu Dhabi -- his country's only military base in the region -- Hollande said it will take at least another week before an African force is deployed in Mali.
The French intervention had allowed time for this force to be put together.
"France is at the forefront," said Hollande. "Had it not been there, Mali would have been today entirely occupied by terrorists and other African countries threatened," he told reporters.
French forces have, since Friday, been supporting an offensive by Malian government troops against Islamist rebels which have controlled the north of the vast country since April 2012.
The military intervention has driven Islamists fighters from their strongholds in the north but the rebels Monday pushed farther into the government-held south, into the town of Diabaly, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital.
"France will continue to have ground and air forces," Hollande said, adding that "new strikes overnight achieved their goal."
A security source in Mali said Tuesday that French forces had carried out overnight air strikes on Diabaly.
Defence sources told AFP on Tuesday that France's intervention force in the former colony will gradually increase in size to reach 2,500 troops.
As Hollande flew into the oil-rich United Arab Emirates early Tuesday, his entourage on the presidential plane said that some 700 soldiers in the French naval base in Abu Dhabi along with six Rafale jets stationed there were on standby to participate in the Mali offensive if needed.
Soon after touching down in Abu Dhabi, Hollande held talks with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
Mauritania, Mali's western neighbour, ordered its troops to seal the border to prevent Islamists fighters from escaping into their territory.
Abdel Aziz raised the possibility of his country participating in operation "Serval" if it was asked, according to Hollande's entourage.
The French president also intimated that Chad and the UAE could participate in the operation.
"It is possible that the UAE could decide to immediately intervene, either in terms of logistic or financial support," Hollande said.
Belgium announced Tuesday that it will contribute two C-130 transport planes and a medivac helicopter to back up France's offensive.
By a quirk of timing, Hollande's trip to the UAE is also aimed at selling Rafale fighter jets like those that have been involved in bombing Islamist rebel bases in Mali.
France is keen to make its first foreign sale of the Rafale, which has struggled to find buyers, to support a project that has cost tens of billions of euros.
Plans for Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to accompany Hollande were scrapped but the high-powered delegation still includes government ministers and leaders of several blue-chip companies.
Hollande met with UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan and was later to meet with Sheikh Mohammad bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of the booming emirate of Dubai, where he will address a press conference.
In Abu Dhabi he also spoke at the opening session of the World Future Energy Summit (WEFS), calling for more investments in renewable energy projects to prepare for the post-oil era and to avoid global warming.
"If we don't spend ... we will have a catastrophe," Hollande warned.
More than 500 French companies are based in the UAE, which had nearly four billion euros of investments in France last year.
Also on the agenda will be energy cooperation, the Syrian crisis and the impasse on the Iranian nuclear standoff, French officials said.
Human Rights Watch has called on Hollande to bring up the issue of human rights in the Gulf country -- both during private talks and publicly.
© 2013 AFP
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