The first West African regional forces arrived in Mali on Thursday to reinforce French and Malian troops battling to push back al Qaeda-linked rebels after seven days of French air strikes.
A contingent of around 100 Togolese troops landed in Bamako and was due to be joined by Nigerian forces already en route. Nigerien and Chadian forces were massing in Niger, Mali's neighbor to the east.
The scrambling of the U.N.-mandated African mission, which previously had not been due for deployment until September, will be a boon for France, the former colonial power in Mali.
French troops, which had moved northwards from Bamako in an armored column on Tuesday, pinned down some Islamist fighters in the small town of Diabaly. But French forces held back from launching an all-out assault as the insurgents had taken refuge in the homes of civilians, residents said.
“The Islamists are still in Diabaly. They are very many of them. Every time they hear a plane overhead, they run into homes, traumatizing the people,” said one woman who fled the town with her three children overnight. Residents in the town of Konna, to the north of the central garrison town of Sevare, said Islamists had fled as Malian soldiers backed by French troops deployed.
“Life is difficult for the people of northern Mali and the international community has the duty to help these people,” said Togolese Lieutenant Colonel Mawoute Bayassim Gnamkoulamba.