Benin soldiers prepare to leave Cotonou for Mali on 18 January 2013 at the Cotonu airportThe regional troops will be deployed in Mali under a UN Security Council resolution

West African leaders are to meet in Ivory Coast to discuss how best to coordinate military action in Mali.

They are expected to discuss plans to deploy African troops in support of French and Malian soldiers already in action against Islamic insurgents.

The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, will also be taking part in the talks in Abidjan.

Islamist fighters on Friday withdrew from two towns in central Mali following French air strikes.

Officials say the Islamists have now left the southern town of Diabaly, which they took on Monday, while Mali’s army has also recaptured Konna, which was seized by rebels triggering the French intervention.

Questions over foreign troops

The first 100 troops of an African force landed in the capital, Bamako, on Thursday.

The soldiers from Togo and Nigeria are part of a long-planned West African force that will join the French and Malian armies in fighting the Islamist insurgents who took over northern Mali last year.

But questions have been raised about the African forces’ ability to fight well-armed Islamist militants, says the BBC’s West Africa correspondent Thomas Fessy.

The regional troops are being deployed in the conflict under a UN Security Council resolution.

The original UN-backed strategy to reclaim northern Mali from Islamist rebels had France – among other Western powers – providing logistical support to an African-led force, adds our correspondent, but it is now clear that French troops will remain at the frontline of operations.

Nigeria will lead the West African force, with Chad, Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo also sending soldiers.

Nigeria says it will increase its forces to 1,200.

Chad has confirmed it will send 2,000 soldiers and it may also contribute its air force, considered one of the most effective on the continent.

A Malian soldier - 16 January 2013

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The BBC’s Andrew Harding: “Civilians have said they have not seen any French troops on the ground”

France says it now has 1,800 troops in Mali after intervening initially with air strikes to try to halt a rapid advance by the Islamists.

Defence sources say France is likely to boost its troop numbers to 2,500.

Islamist fighters in neighbouring Algeria say they have kidnapped foreign gas workers in retaliation for France’s involvement in the Mali conflict.

Islamist groups and secular Tuareg rebels took advantage of chaos following a military coup to seize northern Mali in April 2012. But the Islamists soon took control of the region’s major towns, sidelining the Tuaregs.

The battle for Mali

MapFrench forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist forces have threatened to advance on the capital Bamako from their strongholds in the north. France said it had decided to act to stop the offensive, which could create “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe”.

Mali in the 1930sThe landlocked area of West Africa was the core of ancient empires going back to the 4th Century. The French colonised Mali, then known as French Sudan, at the end of the 19th Century, while Islamic religious wars created theocratic states in the region.

Malian soldiersMali gained independence in 1960 but endured droughts, rebellions and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. In the early 1990s, the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights.

Rebels The insurgency gathered momentum in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. Tuareg nationalists, alongside Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, seized control of the north in 2012 after a military coup by soldiers frustrated by government efforts against the rebels.

Refugee at UNHCR Mangaize refugee camp in NigerThe fighting in the north and the establishment of a harsh form of Islamic law has forced thousands to flee their homes – some estimates say more than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries.

French fighter jetIn January 2013, the Islamists captured the central city of Konna. France, responding to appeals for help from the Mali president, has sent about 550 troops to the Mopti and to Bamako, which is home to about 6,000 French nationals. French jets have also launched air strikes.

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Mali crisis: West African leaders to meet in Ivory Coast – BBC News
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