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Paris (AFP) Jan 23, 2013
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.
African troops in the Mali mission
Known as the MISMA (International Mission for Support to Mali), the force has been set up in line with a United Nations resolution and is headed by Nigerian General Shehu Abdulkadir.
As of Wednesday, between 500 and 700 west African troops were already on the ground in Mali, according to an AFP count.
The African force will be supported by 2,000 soldiers from Chad, which is not part of the regional grouping, but will work in close coordination.
Mali's former colonial ruler France has at this stage a total of 2,300 boots on the ground in Mali, according to the defence ministry in Paris. The deployment is due to reach at least 2,500.
For its part, the European Union last week gave its support to France for its military intervention and agreed to send military trainers for Mali's embattled army while funding the African-led force.
Below is a breakdown of the African contribution:
NIGERIA: The regional powerhouse plans to send a total of 900 troops, with a possibility of going up to 1,200. Around 200 soldiers, as well as the Nigerian force commander, are already deployed in Mali's capital Bamako.
TOGO: Has boosted its troop allotment for Mali to an infantry batallion of at least 730, of whom around 100 are already in the country.
BENIN: Has increased its troop allotment for Mali to 650 soldiers, of whom around 50 are already in place.
NIGER: Is sending a batallion of 500 men, which is currently stationned in the region of Ouallam to the north of Niamey, near to the border with Mali.
BURKINA FASO: Has said it will contribute a battalion of 500 troops, who will be stationned in the frontline region of Markala, to the north-east of Bamako. A first contingent of 150 men is already in Mali.
SENEGAL: Will send 500 soldiers to Mali, of which some 50 have arrived in Bamako.
IVORY COAST: A 500-strong logistical battalion, of which only part will be deployed in Mali.
GUINEA: 125 soldiers.
GHANA: Will send 120 engineering troops to Mali.
CHAD: N'Djamena, which is not a member of ECOWAS, is to send 2,000 soldiers, including an infantry regiment and two support battalions, to Mali.
Some 400 soldiers are already in position in Niamey. Along with the Nigerian troops they are set to head directly to Mali's Islamist bastion of Gao in the north.
Britain, the United States, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and Italy have promised to help the African force by providing transport planes and logistics, including fuel and supplies.
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