West African leaders met in the Ivory Coast today for a special summit to discuss how to step up their role in Mali as the French-led military intervention to oust Islamic extremists from power entered its second week.
Neighbouring countries are expected to contribute around 3,000 troops to the operation, aimed at preventing the militants who rule northern Mali from advancing further south towards the capital, Bamako.
While some initial contributions from Togo and Nigeria have arrived to help the French, concerns about the mission have delayed other neighbours from sending their promised troops so far.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said today that Mali’s neighbours must work together to eradicate terrorism in the region.
“No other nation in the world, no other region in the world will be spared” if large swathes of the Sahel are allowed to become a ’no man’s land’,“ he warned.
At today’s meeting, the big issue will be sorting out a central command for the African force, a French official said.
Nigerian General Shehu Usman Abdulkadir is expected to be named as the force commander.
Speaking on French 3 television today, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Drian said France now has 2,000 troops in Mali and has mobilised 2,900 in the overall operation in places like Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger.
He said France “could go beyond” the 2,500 troops initially announced for Mali, and said that, at full deployment, Operation Serval would involve some 4,000 troops in the region.
Meanwhile, Mr Le Drian insisted “there has been no ground combat in Diabaly” involving French troops.
French forces have moved around Diabaly to cut off supplies to the Islamist extremists who took the town last Monday, said a French official.
Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies with the majority of its 15.8 million people practising a moderate form of Islam.
That changed last March, following a coup in the capital which created the disarray that allowed Islamist extremists to take over the main cities in the distant north.
The UN refugee agency said yesterday that the fighting in Mali could force as many as 700,000 people to flee their homes in the coming months.