CHRISTIAN NEWS: SOURCE By Richard Valdmanis and Tiemoko Diallo
SEGOU/BAMAKO, Mali | Fri Jan 25, 2013 4:17pm EST
(Reuters) – French-backed government forces advanced into northern Mali towards the Islamist rebel stronghold of Gao on Friday, recapturing the town of Hombori and forcing al Qaeda-allied fighters to pull back under relentless French air strikes.
France sent troops and aircraft to its former colony two weeks ago to block a southward offensive by Islamists occupying Mali’s north. French and Malian troops have been pushing forward on either side of the Niger River, securing several farming towns recaptured over the last week.
Leaders gathered at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa appealed for logistical support, supplies and funding from the international community to allow a nearly 6,000-strong African ground force to deploy fully.
“Our troops supported by French forces entered Hombori yesterday evening without any combat. The Islamists had already deserted the town,” a Malian military officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Western and African leaders say the U.N.-backed intervention in Mali is necessary to stop the country’s north – a vast, lawless tract of desert and mountains that juts into the Sahara – from becoming a safe haven for radical Islamist jihadists seeking to launch international attacks.
The United States and the European Union are helping with the airlift of French troops and equipment to Mali but have ruled out sending any combat troops. An EU mission to help train the Malian army will start next month.
Malian officials said French air raids on Thursday hit rebel positions at Ansongo, 95 km (60 miles) south of Gao. This is on the road to neighboring Niger, where Nigerien and Chadian forces are poised to join the fight against the Islamists.
But in a sign of Islamist rebel resistance, a Malian officer and residents living in the area south of Gao reported the militants had blown up a bridge at Tassiga, south of Ansongo, on the road following the Niger River down to Niger.
Despite the optimism now being shown by Malian military commanders, French officials have said their Islamist opponents appear well trained and well equipped, and are likely to resort to hit-and-run guerrilla warfare rather than committing to a conventional battle.
On Thursday, a split emerged in the Islamist militant coalition. One Tuareg leader of the Malian Ansar Dine group announced the creation of a new faction, said he wanted talks and rejected any alliance with AQIM. [ID:nL6N0ATBN1]
France has 2,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali as part of its Operation Serval (Wildcat), while a total of 3,700 French armed forces members are involved in the whole operation, according to the French Defense Ministry.
Only around 1,200 soldiers of the African intervention force for Mali, known as AFISMA and to be mostly comprised of troops from neighboring West African nations, have so far arrived in the country. Troops from Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Niger and Chad are being deployed.
Lamamra said hundreds of millions of dollars would be sought to train, arm and deploy Malian and African troops. Earlier this week France put the targeted figure at about 340 million euros ($452 million) for a full year.