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Foreign Troops Arrive in Mali to Battle Islamists

by VOA News January 11, 2013

The Malian army says troops from Nigeria, Senegal and France have arrived in the country to help the army battle Islamist militants.

Malian army officer Colonel Oumar Dao told reporters in Bamako Friday that troops from the three countries are currently in the central town of Sevare, which is home to an army base.

Almost simultaneously, French President Francois Hollande said French forces arrived in Mali Friday to fight what he called 'terrorist elements.' He said the operation will last 'as long as necessary.'

There was no immediate word on the number of troops deployed.

​​The announcements came amid reports the Malian army has launched an operation to retake the town of Konna from Islamist fighters who seized it on Thursday.

Details on the operation are sketchy but witnesses reported seeing helicopters and planes landing late Thursday in the nearby city of Mopti.

Islamist groups that control all of northern Mali have pushed further south this week, sparking clashes with government forces.

France's foreign ministry has advised French citizens in Mali to leave the country 'temporarily,' while the U.S. embassy in Bamako is urging Americans against all travel to the West African country.

Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore had asked France, the country's former colonial ruler, for immediate help in stopping the rebel advance. Diplomatic sources say Traore will meet with President Hollande in Paris next Wednesday.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council approved a plan for West African states to deploy at least 3,000 troops to Mali to help train the army and retake the north. But until this week, no troops had been expected in Mali until September.

The Islamists' takeover of Konna on Thursday placed the militant force within 25 kilometers from Mopti, the northernmost city under Malian government control. The militant groups are still several hundred kilometers from Bamako.

On Thursday, the government ordered all schools closed in the capital and the nearby garrison town of Kati, citing the threat of civil unrest.

The order, which covers kindergarten through university, came as state television broadcast a statement saying in part that the country faces 'one of the direst periods in its history.' It urged all citizens 'to unite behind the army in the fight to take back the north.'

Al-Qaida-linked groups took control of Mali's north soon after renegade soldiers overthrew the country's elected president last March. The groups have imposed a harsh form of Islamic law on the areas in their control, drawing condemnation from human rights groups.

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