by Staff Writers
Bamako (AFP) Jan 15, 2013
In a hangar at an airbase in Bamako, about 400 French marines, their kit lined up and ready, wait for orders to join the offensive against Islamist fighters in the north of Mali.
They are among the contingent of 750 French troops sent to bolster Malian forces against the well-armed rebels who have controlled northern Mali since April. On Tuesday, defence sources said the French force would eventually number 2,500.
For the marines who arrived in Mali two days ago, their mission is clear: "Help, reinforce the Malian forces by bringing them the support they need," says Captain Pierre Couillot, press officer for the French troops in the Malian capital.
"We're not at their (Malian) command, but we don't move without their okay. If these men haven't been engaged yet in combat with terrorist forces, it's because that hasn't been immediately necessary," he explains to AFP.
"The needs of the forces fighting the terrorists are satisfactory for now," he adds, referring to the French special forces and combat aircraft and helicopter pilots currently fighting alongside the Malian army.
The first marines started arriving late Friday from neighbouring Chad, where they had been stationed, while others came from their base in western France the following day.
The marines have hung their emblem -- a camel head and anchor -- in the hangar, where an old helicopter branded with Mali's tricolour flag and covered in dust serves as their towel rack.
The troops' campsite in the hangar is fitted with foam mattresses provided by local officials placed side by side on the cement floor and separated by fully stuffed backpacks.
Weapons can be seen stockpiled in categories: ammunition, anti-tank missiles and mortars in wooden boxes, and machine guns on tripods.
While awaiting their orders, the French soldiers train, run through their first-aid techniques, and check their weapons.
"The men are operational, with weapons and munition, food for 24 hours and more food supplies on the way," Couillot says.
Parked 50 metres (160 feet) away are two Mirage F1 CR fighter jets that flew in Monday morning from their base in the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
From here, they'll be heading out on reconnaissance and ground attack missions. With reservoirs of 2,200 litres of fuel, they'll be able to fly for up to two hours and fifteen minutes. A bomb is affixed to each of their wings.
"They are old and beautiful machines," says a mechanic. "They have been in the region a long time.... We have all we need."
The marines have also received important support from French forces stationed in Ivory Coast. Several hundred troops and around 60 armoured vehicles and light tanks will stay in Bamako until they're sent towards the Malian desert.
French and Malian troops en route to Islamist-held town
"Several hundred Malian and French soldiers left Niono (south of Diabaly) to take" back the town, said a local government official in Niono.
The move would be the first time French ground troops engage in the battle with Islamists, which they have waged up until now with fighter jets targeting the insurgents' bases.
"Our French brothers are currently with us in Niono on their way to Diabaly. Tomorrow we will take back Diabaly with the French," a Malian security source said, on condition of anonymity.
The procession of troops in armoured vehicles was cheered on by residents of the town as they passed by, according to witnesses.
The Islamists, led by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abou Zeid, seized the town, which lies 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital, on Monday.
Overnight, French fighter jets launched strikes on the town, and residents of a town some 20 kilometres away reported seeing some of the Islamists fleeing.
A regional security source confirmed however that the insurgents were still in the zone around the town, some of whom had taken hostage a local government official and his family.
Meanwhile a convoy of some 30 French tanks left Mali's capital on Tuesday afternoon, headed in a northern direction, an AFP journalist said.
The armoured vehicles were seen leaving Bamako's airport, where they had been stationed, but their destination could not be confirmed.
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