France braces for longer fight in Mali

Islamist rebels make gains despite airstrikes

French soldiers readied ammunition Sunday at a military airbase in Mali, where France has pledged a force of up to 2,500 to battle Islamist fighters pressing from the north.
French soldiers readied ammunition Sunday at a military airbase in Mali, where France has pledged a force of up to 2,500 to battle Islamist fighters pressing from the north.

PARIS — France carried out new airstrikes against Islamist fighters in central Mali, as Paris pledged Tuesday to commit more troops to a potentially protracted campaign against extremists pressing south from a jihadist state they have forged in the desert north of the country.

The assessment that the conflict could be long and perilous appeared to be reflected in a call by France on Tuesday for Arab support to bolster an African force to fight the insurgents.

“We — not just the French, but all nations — have to combat terrorism,’’ Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said during a visit to the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf, announcing that donors would meet later this month, probably in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss financing an offensive against the rebels in Mali, Reuters reported.


‘‘Everybody has to commit to oneself in fighting against terrorism,’’ Fabius said. ‘‘We are pretty confident that the Emirates will go into that direction as well.’’

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On Monday, the extremists overran the central village of Diabaly, just hours after Fabius said confidently that France had blocked ‘‘the advance of the terrorists,’’ accomplishing its first mission in the conflict.

But the French defense minister acknowledged that the military situation was different. A column of militants had pushed within about 50 miles of one of Mali’s largest cities, forcing France to evacuate its citizens in the area and bringing the Islamists a step closer to Bamako, Mali’s capital — closer, in fact, than they had been before French forces entered the fight.

Having entered the war quickly after an urgent plea from the Malian government, France now finds itself facing a well-equipped force of Islamist fighters — with little immediate help from its allies to overcome them.

French President Francois Hollande, who was also in the United Arab Emirates for a one-day meeting to discuss trade and the sale of advanced French Rafale warplanes, said Monday that French jets had ‘‘hit their targets’’ in overnight strikes on rebel forces, Reuters said.


‘‘We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air,’’ Hollande said. ‘‘We have 750 troops deployed at the moment, and that will keep increasing so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans.’’

French defense officials said the French force would be increased gradually to 2,500 soldiers, backed by armored vehicles.

Hollande said a deployment of troops from West African states, to be supported by the French military, could take a ‘‘good week.’’

For its part, the United States has long pledged logistical support but no troops. West African nations have promised 3,300 soldiers to fight alongside the Malian army, but they must be gathered, transported, trained, and financed, and there have long been concerns about their readiness for the task ahead.

The European Union has promised 250 military trainers to aid the Malian army but has yet to deploy them, a decision that may not come before a special foreign ministers’ meeting later this week.


Moreover, the French mission is an ambitious one. Beyond pledging to stop the Islamists from pushing ever deeper into Mali — a more challenging task in itself than French officials initially suggested — France has also vowed to help restore Mali’s territorial integrity, an apparent reference to driving the Islamists out of their vast, northern stronghold, an area twice the size of Germany.

Fabius said Sunday that the French engagement would last only a matter of ‘‘weeks,’’ but as French forces wait for their African counterparts to ready themselves, Hollande may find it hard to keep his vow not to use French ground forces in northern Mali.