ABIDJAN – West African leaders Saturday sought urgent U.N. aid for a regional force to fight Islamists in Mali as President Francois Hollande said French troops would remain as long as needed to stamp out “terrorism.”
The emergency summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc also called on member states and Chad, which has pledged 2,000 troops, to put words into action without haste.
Only about 100 African soldiers of a planned 5,800 African force have so far reached Mali, while France said Saturday that 2,000 French soldiers were now on the ground after Paris launched an offensive a little over a week ago to stop Islamists swooping down from the north, which is under their control.
A statement at the end of the Abidjan meeting called on the United Nations “to immediately provide financial and logistical backing for the deployment of MISMA,” the African force.
African troop deployments have always been long-drawn affairs. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “The truth is that ECOWAS has no money to transport its troops.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who also attended the summit, said it was time for the Africans to take charge of the task of halting the extremist advance “as soon as possible.”
While some initial contributions from Togo and Nigeria have arrived to help the French, concerns about the mission have delayed other neighbors from sending their promised troops so far.
Funding for the mission is also an issue. Fabius said a donor summit in Addis Ababa on Jan. 29 “will be a key event.” “It is vital that the maximum number of countries worldwide contribute” to the effort, he said. “France was obliged to intervene very, very rapidly, otherwise there would have been no more Mali. But it is well understood that it is the Africans that must pick up the baton.”
Hollande, however, said: “I am often asked the question: How long will this last? I reply, ‘As long as is necessary.’ As long as is necessary so that terrorism can be defeated in that part of Africa.”
Cote d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara, who is also the current head of ECOWAS, said it was high time others did their bit to help end the crisis. “The hour has come for a broader commitment by the major powers and more countries and organizations to the military operations to show greater solidarity with France and Africa,” he said.
“We must speed up the re-establishment of Mali’s territorial integrity with the logistical support of our partners . . . (and) go beyond our current deployment numbers,” Ouattara said, warning that the crisis threatened to destabilize the region.
Malian soldiers, backed by French troops and air power, retook the central town of Konna on Thursday from rebels who had swooped down more than a week ago and threatened Bamako.
There were conflicting reports on another town, Diabaly. The Malian Army and residents claimed it had been recaptured following French airstrikes that began after the Islamists seized Diabaly nearly one week ago, but the French Defense Ministry effectively denied this.
Interim Mali President Dioncounda Traore vowed to rout the Islamists, who he said wanted “to impose a medieval ideology on our people.”
“This war will be without doubt costly and tiring,” he said. “We will win this war in the name of civilization and democracy.”
Traore also appealed to other countries to back the drive against the militants by extending “logistical and any other kind of aid to create a region that is rid of terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime.”