French will triple troops in Mali, prepare for ground fight
French military officials say they will up forces from 800 to 2500 and in Mali a huge logistical operation to support ground forces grinds into place.
After a punishing bombing campaign failed to stop the southward advance of Al Qaeda-linked fighters, France announced Tuesday it will triple the number of troops deployed to Mali, suggesting the French are preparing for a land assault to dislodge the extremists.Skip to next paragraph
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The move reverses months of rhetoric in which France had said they would provide aerial and logistical support for a military intervention, but insisted it would need to be led by African troops.
Last week France plunged headfirst into the conflict, authorizing air strikes after the extremists launched an aggressive push southward. Despite pounding the north of this landlocked country with 250-kilogram (550-pound) bombs for the past five days, the rebels have extended their reach, taking over a town and its strategically important military camp in the central Malian town of Diabaly on Monday.
A French Defense Ministry official, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said that France was increasing the number of soldiers in Mali from 800 to 2,500.
The military chiefs of the nation's neighboring Mali met in Bamako Tuesday, but none of the thousands of troops pledged by these countries have yet arrived in Mali, and it has become increasingly apparent that France will be leading the attack and not playing a supporting role.
French President Franςois Hollande told RFI radio early Tuesday that he thought they would succeed in ousting the extremists in one week, but by the afternoon he outlined a far longer-term commitment: "We have one objective: To make sure when we leave, when we end this intervention, there is security in Mali, legitimate leaders, an electoral process and the terrorists no longer threaten its territory," he said during a stop in the United Arab Emirates.
Supplies for the French forces continued to arrive in a steady stream Tuesday, part of the enormous logistics operation needed to support thousands of troops in the baking Sahara sun, a terrain the Islamists have operated in for nearly a decade.
Transport planes bringing military hardware landed on the short airstrip. A giant Antonov, two C-17 Boeings and a C-160 disgorged equipment for the hundreds of French soldiers deployed in Mali, likely in preparation for a land offensive to seize back the northern territory held by a trio of rebel groups affiliated with Al Qaeda since March.
Burly men in fatigues carried wooden boxes of munitions, labeled with signs that said, "Flammable." Armored personnel carriers queued up at the airport's gasoline pump. The roughly 40 armored vehicles were driven in overnight by French soldiers, stationed in Ivory Coast. They include the ERC-90, a six-wheeled vehicle mounted with a 90 mm cannon, which points out like a horn. Dozens of French Marines who were among the first to be deployed and arrived last week, were camping inside an airport hangar, sleeping on pads laid on the cement floor. Among the supplies they are missing are mosquito nets, explained Adj. Nicolas, who gave only his first name in keeping with military protocol.
A veteran of Afghanistan, Nicolas said the difficulty his regiment will face is the punishing Sahara heat, and the desert terrain. The average weight that each infantrymen has to carry, including a flak jacket and a camel skin filled with 2 to 3 liters of water is between 20 to 40 kilograms (45 to 90 pounds).