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Extra combat troops pour into Mali


Soldiers man a checkpoint at a bridge in Markala in central Mali (AP)

Soldiers man a checkpoint at a bridge in Markala in central Mali (AP)

Soldiers man a checkpoint at a bridge in Markala in central Mali (AP)

France is tripling the number of troops deployed to Mali to 2,500, part of the massive preparation for a land assault to dislodge Islamist extremists.

Despite a punishing, five-day campaign of aerial bombardments, the al Qaida-linked rebels have continued to advance south, seizing a strategic military camp in central Mali, and embedding themselves in villages making it impossible to bomb without killing civilians.

The number of French soldiers in Mali was rapidly increasing, including elite special forces. Every few hours, enormous transport planes were arriving at Bamako's airport, loaded with supplies and more soldiers. Overnight 150 French soldiers drove from neighbouring Ivory Coast, bringing in a convoy of 40 armoured vehicles. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighbouring Mali are also expected to begin arriving soon, and Nigeria said nearly 200 would be coming in the next 24 hours.

French president Francois Hollande launched an attack on Mali's rebels last week after the insurgents began advancing south. France's action pre-empted a United Nations-approved plan for a military operation in Mali, which was expected to start about nine months from now. Mr Hollande decided a military response could not wait that long in its former colony.

French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected. Despite France's five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly on Monday, putting them 250 miles from Mali's capital, Bamako.

The Islamists taunted the French, saying that they have vastly exaggerated their gains. "I would advise France not to sing their victory song too quickly. They managed to leave Afghanistan. They will never leave Mali," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a commander of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the extremist groups controlling northern Mali, whose fighters are believed to be in Diabaly. "It's to our advantage that they send in French troops on foot," he said. "We are waiting for them. And what they should know is that every French soldier that comes into our territory should make sure to prepare his will beforehand, because he will not leave alive."

Diabaly represents an especially symbolic victory for the Islamists. It was in the military camp inside the town that 16 Muslim preachers from the fundamentalist Islamic sect, the Dawa which originated in India, were massacred by Malian government forces four months ago. The group was unarmed, and was heading to a religious conference in the capital.

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Many of the leaders of the extremist groups occupying northern Mali began their path to jihad by adhering to the Dawa interpretation of Islam, which calls on the faithful to act as missionaries.

The al Qaida-linked groups control an area that is the size of France itself in northern Mali, a territory larger than even Afghanistan. They seized it in conjunction with other rebel groups nine months ago, and have imposed a brutal version of Islam.

Girls as young as 12 have been flogged for not covering up, as have pregnant and elderly women. The rich musical tradition of this part of the world has gone silent in the north, where even mobile phone ringtones are banned.

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