President Jacob Zuma addresses reporters in Addis Ababa on Saturday. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
President Jacob Zuma addresses reporters in Addis Ababa on Saturday. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

ADDIS ABABA — African governments struggled to fund and mobilise troops to help Mali at the weekend but France’s crack force in its former West African colony pushed further north to Gao, recapturing the key town’s airport from Islamic rebels.

South Africa showed no intent on Saturday, on the eve of the annual African Union summit in Ethiopia, of contributing troops to Afisma (the African-led international support mission in Mali).

"No, we have not offered any soldiers," President Jacob Zuma told reporters in Addis Ababa. He said Ecowas, the grouping of 15 West African states including Mali, was handling the crisis very well and South Africa did not want to pre-empt discussions at the AU Summit on Sunday and Monday.

For the past three weeks France has acted alone to halt and then push back the rebels, many of whom are linked to al-Qaeda. On Saturday, the French defence ministry said its 2,500-strong force was in control of Gao airport and a key bridge over the River Niger.

The Islamists seized two-thirds of Mali last year and were threatening to capture the rest as African and international dithering prevented any military reaction. Haggling about "who pays?" money issues will have to be settled in Addis at the summit and at a donors’ conference here next Tuesday before the planned 6,000-strong Afisma is fully deployed and starts backing the French and Malian forces in the field.

So far about 1,200 foreign African soldiers have arrived in Bamako.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairwoman of the AU Commission who is hosting her first summit, thanked France on Friday for its intervention. It was Rwanda’s turn on Saturday.

"We think France’s intervention is justified. If Africa cannot do it, someone else must do it," Louise Mushikiwabo told reporters.

"We would have preferred an African force. Perhaps Mali will be a wake-up call," she said.

The AU Summit has a prodigious agenda of subjects and problems to tackle but Mali and, to a lesser extent, the growing tension between Sudan and South Sudan are already emerging as key issues.

Despite the diverted focus, Mr Zuma and President Macky Sall of Senegal presented the latest outline plans to build tens of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects across Africa, including roads, railways and broadband. They were drawn up by the Midrand-based New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

Mr Zuma commented on why his government dispatched up to 400 troops to the Central African Republic in early January when rebels there were threatening the capital, Bangui, and the government of President Francois Bozize.

"There was a need to send a small contingent to be there to protect our interests in that country," he said.