A Malian gendarme stands guard after the arrival of a US Air Force C-17 transport plane with French troops at the airport in Bamako on Tuesday. Picture: REUTERS
A Malian gendarme stands guard after the arrival of a US Air Force C-17 transport plane with French troops at the airport in Bamako on Tuesday. Picture: REUTERS

PARIS — The US has started transporting French soldiers and equipment to Mali as part of its logistical aid to French forces fighting Islamist militants in the north of the desert country.

This comes as the French and Malian forces said they had taken control of more important towns in the country’s north that Islamists had held for more than an year.

France started air strikes on Mali’s north on January 11 to back the domestic army in its bid to take control from Islamist militants who seek to impose a strict version of sharia law on the landlocked nation. The international community fears the vast desert country could become a launch pad for international attacks.

US ambassador to the African Union Michael Battle echoed those fears on Monday, saying instability in Mali threatened the wider region, especially neighbouring Niger and Algeria. "Their peace and stability is dependent on stability and good governance in Mali," he said.

Deadly attacks on an oil and gas installation in neighbouring Algeria highlighted the threat.

"We have started airlifting French army personnel and equipment to Bamako from Istres," said Benjamin Benson, a spokesman for US Africa Command (Africom).

A witness on Tuesday saw a US-flagged military transport aircraft taking off from the Istres air base in southern France.

French Armed Forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said this week that Britain, Belgium, Canada and Denmark were already transporting French materiel.

Gen Benson said the US was also working with France on intelligence issues, but declined to say if surveillance drones were being used.

French and Malian troops had seized Diabaly and Douentza on Monday after reclaiming the strategic town of Konna on January 18, according to the French defence ministry.

Meanwhile, Mali’s Islamic leaders praised the French-led intervention. "The intervention of France in Mali has nothing to do with a fight against Islam," Mohamoud Dicko, president of the Islamic High Council of Mali, said yesterday in Bamako, the capital. "It is a fight against crime and terrorism."

African nations are taking part in the mission, with troops arriving in the country this week. The continental force might eventually reach 5,500 soldiers, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at the weekend. The contingent, which was planned by the African Union before the French strikes started, was initially expected to reach 3,300.

Witnesses said an armoured column of Chadian troops in Niger moved towards the Malian border on Tuesday. Chadian forces, who are experienced in desert operations, were advancing north from the capital Niamey on the road to Ouallam, about 100km from the border, where a company of Niger’s troops is already stationed.

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who visited the troops at Ouallam military base, condemned the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist alliance, including Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. An Imam said prayers for the troops.

"We are going to war," Mr Issoufou told the forces. "A war imposed on us by traffickers of all kinds, an unjust war from which the peaceful citizens of northern Mali are suffering terribly ."

African leaders will discuss the intervention in Mali during an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Sunday and Monday.

Bloomberg, Reuters

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ALGIERS — Algerian authorities said on Tuesday it was "highly probable" that five foreigners missing after a militant attack on a Saharan natural gas facility were killed in an explosion at the plant.

Security forces are scouring the desert for the foreigners, who were among more than 700 in the In Amenas complex when it was attacked on January 16 by a multi-national group of insurgents who entered the country from neighbouring Mali, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The audacious attack, in which 37 hostages were killed, transfixed the world and showed the improved capabilities of al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahara.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said 29 militants died and three were captured. He said the group came from northern Mali and managed to sneak across hundreds of kilometres of desert, across the borders of Libya and Niger into Algeria.

Sapa-AP