Western donors pledge Mali funds


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PARIS -- Western donors pledged $455 million for an African force to help clear northern Mali of Islamist militants, and Britain and Germany offered more support for the mission, as Malian forces patrolled the streets of Timbuktu.

"We are in control of Timbuktu, and we are making sure the city is safe and secure for all," Mali military spokesman Col. Diarran Kone said Tuesday by phone.

A French armored unit seized the city's airport, about 4.3 miles from the town center, while the French military's first operational airdrop in more than 30 years placed paratroopers north of Timbuktu to prevent Islamist units from escaping.

A meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, organized by the African Union and attended by Malian President Dioncounda Traore and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, received pledges Tuesday of $455.5 million for an African-led Mali force, with funds coming from the United States, the European Union and France. Japan will spend $120 million on Mali refugees and security.

Ecowas, the grouping of West African states, plans an initial force of 3,300 soldiers, with 1,500 in reserve, according to Ecowas chairman Alassane Ouattara of the Ivory Coast. So far, about 2,000 have arrived in Mali and neighboring Niger, the French military said.

U.S. officials said Monday that the United States and Niger, on Mali's eastern border, reached an agreement allowing U.S. military personnel and possibly drones to be stationed in the West African nation to combat Islamist militants across the region. While no combat troops are envisioned, the pact allows deployment of military assets in Niger to respond to the terror threat, the officials said.

The British government is ready to expand its assistance for the French and African troops fighting in Mali, Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said Tuesday. Britain is ready to offer a roll-on roll-off ferry to help transport French military vehicles to Mali, to supply as many as 40 personnel for an EU training force in the West African country, and to offer as many as 200 trainers to be stationed in countries elsewhere in the region, spokesman Jean-Christophe Gray told reporters in London.

The German government will supply trucks for Mali's army, a field hospital and flak jackets, the German Foreign Ministry said Tuesday in an emailed statement. Germany has already deployed two Transall transport planes to assist France.

French military engineers are clearing runway obstacles that retreating militants left at Timbuktu's airport, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said at a news conference Monday.

Fighting alongside Malian and African forces, the French on Jan. 16 captured another northern town, Gao, about 590 miles north of Bamako, according to France's Defense Ministry, giving the French and Malian forces full control of the Niger River valley, the lifeline of northern Mali. Niger and Chadian troops were airlifted into Gao's airport. The last of three large northern cities the rebels still control is Kidal. French jets bombed positions around Kidal on Sunday, Mr. Burkhard said.

Some French newspapers such as Le Figaro have reported that Kidal is under the control of Tuareg groups willing to cooperate with international forces to expel jihadist groups from northern Mali before negotiating regional autonomy from the Bamako-based government.

"The military part of driving the rebels out was the easy part," said Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's center in Brussels and a former analyst at the German Defense Ministry and NATO Defense College.

"Now comes the hard part. How can this be made sustainable? Can the vacuum be filled by the Malian government, by the French or by troops from surrounding countries?" he asked in a phone interview. "Mali's government was just days from being ousted by the Islamist militants, and the neighbors have been timid, so I have my doubts."

French warplanes destroyed pickup trucks used by the militants, and French special forces killed 15 militants in a "brief but violent" firefight to seize a bridge in Gao over the weekend, Mr. Burkhard said.

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