French, Malian troops expand ground operations

French and Malian troops broadened their ground operations in central Mali on Thursday, senior Malian military officials said, battling some militants in the area as hundreds of French reinforcements arrived in the West African nation’s capital.

“Our troops and the French soldiers are fighting the militants and trying to push them out of Diabaly,” said a Malian colonel with direct knowledge of the operations in the desert village, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Militants seized the village, 250 miles from the capital, Bamako, earlier this week.

Malian troops, meanwhile, sped to the town of Banamba, 90 miles from Bamako, after a reported sighting of militants, the Associated Press reported.

In Paris, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that France’s military contingent in Mali has grown to 1,400 from 600 a day earlier and that fighting has continued since Wednesday.

“The actions of French forces, be it air forces or ground forces, are ongoing,” Le Drian said. “They took place yesterday; they took place last night; they took place today; they will take place tomorrow.” Le Drian did not say whether there was fighting in areas besides Diabaly.

African forces backed by the United States are preparing to recapture Mali’s north from extremists linked to al-Qaeda. Africa bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan explains why it could be a difficult mission. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

Also Thursday, European Union foreign ministers approved the dispatch of a military training mission to bolster Mali’s weak armed forces, and 100 Togolese troops arrived in Bamako to aid the French and Malian soldiers. They were expected to be joined by Nigerian troops — part of a 3,000-strong African force approved by the U.N. Security Council last month.

Outside Diabaly, French and Malian forces continued to mass. While they clashed with some militants, they did not launch an all-out assault on the village, residents said, adding that the Islamists remained entrenched in the area.

“The Islamists are not only in Diabaly,” said Oumar Diakite, its mayor, who fled to Bamako on Monday, hours before the Islamists entered. “They are also in the surrounding villages.”

The ground campaign begun by the French forces last week targets the Islamists who seized a vast arc of territory in northern Mali last March amid a military coup that has destabilized the country’s government. The Islamists include al-Qaeda’s North and West African affiliate and two other extremist groups, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.

France launched a surprise aerial military assault last week after the Islamists pushed south and seized the town of Konna. But despite the French airstrikes, the militants swept into Diabaly.

In Brussels, after a meeting with the E.U. foreign ministers, Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly called for “the entire international community” to assist his country.

“What is happening in Mali is a global threat,” Coulibaly said at a news conference. “Remember what happened on September 11th,” he said, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. “It is that terrorism can happen anywhere, at any moment, to anyone.”

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's bureau chief in Africa since 2010. He began his career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, and covered the Iraq war as Baghdad bureau chief.
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