French triple troops in Mali, prepare for assault

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — After a punishing bombing campaign failed to halt the advance of al-Qaida-linked fighters, France pledged Tuesday to send hundreds more troops into Mali as it prepared for a land assault to dislodge the militants occupying the northern half of the country.

The move reversed France’s earlier insistence on providing only aerial and logistical support for a military intervention led by African ground troops.

France plunged headfirst into the conflict in its former colony last week, bombarding the insurgents’ desert stronghold in an effort to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

But despite five days of airstrikes, the rebels have extended their reach, taking over a strategically important military camp in the central Malian town of Diabaly on Monday.

On Tuesday, France announced it was tripling the number of soldiers in Mali from 800 to 2,500. The offensive was to have been led by thousands of African troops pledged by Mali’s neighbors, but they have yet to arrive, making it increasingly apparent that France will be leading the attack and not playing a supporting role.

French President Francois Hollande told RFI radio early Tuesday that he believed France could succeed in ousting the extremists in a week. But by afternoon he had outlined a far longer-term commitment.

“We have one objective: To make sure that when we leave, when we end this intervention, there is security in Mali, legitimate leaders, an electoral process and the terrorists no longer threaten its territory,” he said during a stop in the United Arab Emirates.

“We are confident about the speed with which we will be able to stop the aggressors, the enemy, these terrorists,” he added.

Supplies for the French forces arrived in a steady stream Tuesday, part of the enormous logistics operation needed to support thousands of troops in the baking Sahara sun, a terrain the Islamists have operated in for nearly a decade.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that the Obama administration had ruled out putting any American troops on the ground in Mali, but was providing intelligence-gathering assistance to the French. Officials did not rule out having American aircraft land in the West African nation as part of future efforts to lend airlift and logistical support.

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