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French Forces Prepare for Ground Attack in Northern Mali

Johannesburg — French ground troops headed toward rebel-held territory in northern Mali as West African soldiers prepared to join the operations against the insurgents.

French forces moved from the capital, Bamako, to engage directly with militants in what they expect will be “a guerrilla-like conflict,” Admiral Edouard Guillaud, France’s chief of defense staff, said yesterday on Europe 1 radio from Paris.

The frontline between insurgents and Mali’s army is “artificial” and “the result of a balance of forces that we want to break,” French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament. The air strikes deep into the north are meant to “neutralize the terrorists, and degrade their ability to strike across the country,” he said.

With about 1,700 troops committed to the Mali mission, including 800 already in the country, President Francois Hollande said his aim is to destroy or capture the militants who split the country in two early last year and began moving south toward the capital last week.

“Our goal is that when we leave, there will be security in Mali, a legitimate government, and no terrorists threatening the security of Mali,” Hollande said Tuesday in Dubai.

The rebel offensive last week prompted thousands of people to flee to neighboring countries and cities in the south, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

West African defense chiefs met Tuesday in Bamako as countries including Ghana, Togo, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria pledged troops for the mission. Nigeria said it would send 190 troops within 24 hours, with the remaining 710 soldiers of its contingent arriving next week.

“We want to deploy troops rapidly to support the Malian troops,” Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara, who is also the chair of the Economic Community of West African States, told reporters in Berlin yesterday. “We want to solve this military problem as quickly as possible.”

The rebels exploited political instability in Bamako after a March coup to seize control of the north. While the insurgents include Islamists such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaida’s north African unit, there are also ethnic Touareg fighters seeking greater autonomy in the region.

Mali is now led by interim President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of the coup, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.

The militants number 2,000 to 5,000 fighters, with criminal bands and drugs smugglers on the fringes, according to a report from CF2R, a French institute that does research on intelligence issues.