BAMAKO (Reuters) - France hit Islamist rebels in Mali with fresh air strikes and deployed armored cars on Tuesday, stepping up its intervention in the West African state as regional allies struggled to accelerate their plans to send in troops.
Paris has poured hundreds of soldiers into Mali and carried out air raids since Friday in the northern half of the country, which was seized last year by an Islamist alliance combining al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM with Mali's home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine rebel groups.
Western and regional states fear the insurgents will use Mali's north, a vast and inhospitable area of desert and rugged mountains the size of Texas, as a base for attacks on the African continent and also in Europe.
West African defense chiefs were meeting in the Malian capital Bamako on Tuesday to approve plans for speeding up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops, foreseen in a United Nation-backed intervention plan to be led by Africans. France sent its forces into Mali last week to block a surprise southwards push by the rebels.
Speaking during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, President Francois Hollande said French forces carried out further air strikes overnight in Mali "which hit their targets".
"We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air," Hollande said. "We have 750 troops deployed at the moment and that will keep increasing so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans."
A column of French armored vehicles rumbled into the dusty riverside capital overnight. The vehicles, which had driven up from a French base in Ivory Coast, were expected to move northwards eventually towards the combat zone.
France's defense ministry has said it plans to deploy 2,500 soldiers in its former colony to bolster the Malian army and work with the intervention force provided by the ECOWAS grouping of West African states.
Hollande saw the ECOWAS deployment taking "a good week".
There are some concerns that a delay in following up on the French air bombardments of Islamist bases and fuel depots with a ground offensive could allow the insurgents to slip away into the desert and mountains, regroup and counter-attack.
The rebels, who French officials say are mobile and well-armed, have shown they can hit back, dislodging government forces from Diabaly, 350 km (220 miles) from Bamako on Monday.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, accompanying Hollande, said the offensive against the Malian rebels could take some time, and the current French level of involvement could last weeks.
Gulf Arab states would also help the Mali campaign, Fabius added, and there would be a meeting of donors for the operation most likely in Addis Ababa at the end of January.
QUESTIONS OVER READINESS
ECOWAS mission head in Bamako Aboudou Toure Cheaka said the West African troops would be on the ground in a week. Their immediate mission would be to help stop the rebel advance while preparations for a full intervention plan continued.
The original timetable for the 3,300-strong U.N.-sanctioned African force - to be backed by western logistics, money and intelligence services - did not initially foresee full deployment before September due to logistical constraints.
Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Guinea have all offered troops. But regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that even if some troops arrive in Mali soon, their training and equipping will take more time.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan told foreign diplomats in Abuja late on Monday that the Nigerian contingent would be in Mali before next week. "We can no longer surrender any part of the globe to extremism," he said.
But Sub-Saharan Africa's top oil producer, which already has hundreds of peacekeepers in Sudan's Darfur and is fighting a bloody and difficult insurgency at home against Islamist sect Boko Haram, could struggle to deliver on its troop commitment.
One senior government adviser in Nigeria said the Mali deployment was stretching the country's military.
"The whole thing's a mess. We don't have any troops with experience of those extreme conditions, even of how to keep all that sand from ruining your equipment. And we're facing battle-hardened guys who live in those dunes," the adviser said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Security experts have warned that the multinational intervention in Mali, couched in terms of a campaign by governments against "terrorism", could provoke a jihadist backlash against France and the West, and African allies.
U.S. officials have warned of links between AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Shabaab Islamic militants fighting in Somalia.
Al Shabaab, which foiled a French effort at the weekend to rescue a French secret agent it was holding hostage, urged Muslims around the world to rise up against what it called "Christian" attacks against Islam.
"Our brothers in Mali, show patience and tolerance and you will win. War planes never liberate a land," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, al Shabaab's spokesman, said in an audio statement posted on the rebel-run www.somaliamemo.net website
The ECOWAS deployment plan is being fast-tracked following a plea for help by Mali's government after mobile columns of Islamist fighters threatened last week the central Malian garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, with its key airport.
U.N.: THOUSANDS FLEE FIGHTING
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said France's goals were to stop the rebels, to "safeguard the existence of Mali".
U.S. officials said Washington was sharing information with French forces in Mali and considering providing logistics, surveillance and airlift capability.
"We have made a commitment that al Qaeda is not going to find anyplace to hide," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters as he began a visit to Europe.
French intervention has raised the risk for eight French hostages held by al Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for 30,000 French expatriates living in neighboring, mostly Muslim states. Concerned about reprisals at home, France has tightened security at public buildings and on public transport.
The U.N. said an estimated 30,000 people had fled the latest fighting in Mali, joining more than 200,000 already displaced.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed on Monday the French-led military intervention in Mali and voiced the hope that it would halt the Islamist assault.
Amnesty International said at least six civilians were killed in recent fighting in the town of Konna, where French aircraft had earlier bombarded rebel positions, and called on both sides to spare non-combatants.
France, which has repeatedly said it has abandoned its role as the policeman of its former African colonies, convened a U.N. Security Council meeting Monday to discuss the crisis.
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters after the meeting that the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark and Germany had also offered logistical support for France's Mali operation.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi; Felix Onuah in Abuja and Tim Cocks in Lagos; Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Michelle Nichols Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Richard Valdmanis in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by David Stamp)
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