Nigerian soldiers prepare to load weapons stored in boxes into a military plane before leaving for Mali on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS
Nigerian soldiers prepare to load weapons stored in boxes into a military plane before leaving for Mali, at the airport in Nigeria on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS

BAMAKO — A hostage crisis in Algeria on Thursday did not stop French forces in Mali as a ground assault intensified, European Union (EU) foreign ministers pledged support for Mali and the first African forces from Nigeria were expected in Bamako.

EU foreign ministers agreed at an emergency meeting in Brussels, attended by Mali’s Foreign Minister, Tieman Hubert Coulibaly, to send hundreds of military personnel to aid Mali government forces in fighting Islamist militants.

Al-Qaeda linked Islamists’ campaign to impose Islamic law across north Africa is causing growing unease in western states, who fear northern Mali has become a haven for a variety of Islamist groups and a base for attacks on Europe, Africa and Asia.

The EU forces’ training mission had been the subject of discussions for weeks, but it was fast-tracked after the intervention in Mali to stop Islamists overrunning the country.

President Jacob Zuma in an interview this week backed France’s action, saying French President Francois Hollande had called African leaders to tell them of the planned incursion. "There was a need to take very swift action and what has been different this time is that the president of France phoned many of us to inform us that this was an action that he was undertaking and he would never take an action without consulting with the African leaders. It’s the first time," he said.

Mr Zuma met president of Benin and African Union (AU) chairman Yayi Boni in Pretoria on Wednesday ahead of next week’s AU summit in Addis Ababa.

"We need to welcome the intervention of France. It does not raise any issues … we need to create institutions (for) peace in our continent. We want peace," Mr Yayi said at the same interview.

Western stakes in the crisis were underlined when Islamist gunmen took dozens of foreign and local workers hostage at an Algerian desert gas facility on Wednesday, demanding that EU power broker France pull its troops out of Mali.

Scores were feared dead yesterday as Algerian forces launched an operation to end the hostage crisis.

The civil war in Libya in 2011 made it easier for militant groups operating in the Sahara to acquire weapons and train for jihad.

Malian soldiers claimed yesterday they had recaptured the strategic central town of Konna from Islamists, who seized control of northern Mali last year.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France now had 1,400 troops on the ground, and a ground assault was under way. "There was combat yesterday, on the ground and in the air. It happened overnight and is under way now," said Mr Le Drian.

France expects to ramp up to a total of 2,500 soldiers. It has committed helicopter gunships, fighter jets, drones and refuelling tankers against the Islamists.

The French action last week came as a surprise but received widespread international support. Economic Community of West African States countries planning to provide ground troops for a UN force by September have said they will move faster to deploy them. Nigeria sent 162 soldiers yesterday.

"The whole world clearly needs to unite and do much more than is presently being done to contain terrorism, with its very negative impact on global peace and security," President Goodluck Jonathan said.

Germany, Britain and the Netherlands have offered transport aircraft to help ferry in African troops. Washington has said it is considering what support it can offer, including drones.

Reuters, Staff Writer