France to triple deployment in Mali to total of 2,500 troops
AP and AFPPARIS/LISBON, Portugal--France is planning to triple the size of its force in Mali to a total of 2,500 troops, defense sources said Tuesday in the clearest sign yet that Paris is preparing for a drawn-out campaign in its former colony.
January 16, 2013, 12:00 am TWN
“There will be a gradual build-up to a figure of 2,500,” a source close to Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a revelation that points to French forces playing a far bigger — and inevitably far longer — role in the campaign against Islamist groups in northern Mali than previously indicated.
President Francois Hollande said earlier on Tuesday that there were currently 750 French soldiers in the former colony but acknowledged that this figure would increase.
The plan to deploy a force of up to 2,500 men is at odds with suggestions by government ministers that the involvement of French ground troops would be limited to protecting Mali's capital, Bamako.
According to Le Monde and other French media, France is also planning to base a substantial contingent of troops at Mopti in central Mali, from where they will be able to carry out operations in the north of the country.
Until now, ministers have portrayed France's involvement as restricted to stopping the Islamists' push south, with the subsequent task of regaining control of the north to be handed over to the Malian army with the support of troops from neighboring West African states.
Military analysts have described this scenario as optimistic given the limited capacity of the Malian army and the West African forces' lack of experience in combating battle-hardened, well-armed guerrilla fighters in unfamiliar desert terrain.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday that he thought involvement in the Mali campaign would essentially be aerial and claimed France's mission could be completed in a matter of weeks.
The mission in Mali has enjoyed widespread support in France, though some critics have raised concerns that the government has not done enough to lay out its end game.
Former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard said Tuesday he supported the operation but that it was launching France into a “10-year brawl” against Islamic extremists in the Sahel desert region of North and West Africa.
“This is all very difficult, there is no foregone conclusion,” Rocard told France Inter radio. “We will lose men, there will be catastrophes, there will be attacks in the country, it will all be pretty frightening.”
No US Troops on Ground in Mali: Panetta
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that the U.S. has ruled out putting any American troops on the ground in Mali, but officials are hoping the French will be able to succeed in establishing better security for the West African nation.
Panetta spoke at a press conference in Lisbon with Portuguese Defense Minister Jose Aguiar Branco.
The U.S. is providing intelligence-gathering assistance to the French in their assault on Islamist extremists in Mali, and officials would not rule out having American aircraft land in the West African nation as part of future efforts to lend airlift and logistical support.
On Tuesday, Panetta said the U.S. is still working through the details of assistance it will provide France.
Panetta has called the military operation important, although “there is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time.” He said that although al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, also known as AQIM, and other affiliate groups in Mali may not pose an immediate threat to the United States, “ultimately that remains their objective.”
“We have to take steps now so that AQIM does not get that kind of traction,” he said, and ensure it does not secure a base of operations in the region.