US begins transporting French troops to Mali

A French soldier deployed in Diabaly patrol on January 22, 2013. The EU executive Tuesday announced 20 million euros of extra humanitarian aid to help tens of thousands of Malians fleeing fighting in the nation's north and centre, its second such donation in as many months.

DIABALY, Mali — The United States has begun transporting French troops and equipment to Mali, a US official said on Tuesday.

"We have started air lifting French army personnel and equipment to Bamako from Istres," said Benjamin Benson, a spokesman for the military's US Africa Command (AFRICOM), according to Reuters.

The US is providing logistical support to France in a military intervention requested by the Malian government to push back Islamist rebels.

Tom Saunders, another AFRICOM spokesman, said two flights arrived in the Malian capital city of Bamako on Monday, and a third arrived on Tuesday morning, according to the Associated Press.

The BBC reported the UK government was also considering offering more help to French forces. The UK has already lent two military aircrafts and Prime Minister David Cameron said it could provide further transport and surveillance.

The UK Defense Ministry said there were no plans for British soldiers to be involved in ground combat.

French airstrikes helped French and Malian troops take control of two central towns Monday. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the advance was "a clear military success for the government in Bamako and for French forces intervening in support of these operations," according to The New York Times.

Evidence of the French-led attacks on Islamist positions can be seen at the entry to the central Mali town of Diabaly, where the incinerated shells of five vehicles lay in a tangled, charred mess after being hit by air strikes last week, says GlobalPost's Tristan McConnell, reporting from Diabaly.

The loss of Diabaly and the reported withdrawal from another town, Douentza to the northeast, have put the Islamist forces on the back foot as France promised to continue its push farther into the desert.

Residents of Diabaly said they owed their safety and freedom to the French military, which has ground troops billeted alongside Malian soldiers in the town and surrounding area.

"If I am sitting here now it is because the French," Drissa Simayoko, a 29-year-old motorbike mechanic, told GlobalPost.

But there were also fears of what would happen when the French pull out. Mali's shambolic army has crumbled in the face of every Islamist advance over the last 10-months, leaving citizens doubtful of their army's ability to protect them.

"One day the French will leave and then will the Islamists return?" Simayoko said.

What about French troops' abilities?

The head of Mali's armed forces has told French radio his country's major northern cities could be back in government hands within a month.

"Our objective is the total liberation of the northern regions of Mali," Gen. Ibrahima Dhirou Dembele told Radio France Internationale. "If we get enough support, it won't take more than a month for Gao and Timbuktu."

Despite the general's confidence, French officials have been preparing the public for a long conflict, says GlobalPost's Paul Ames in Brussels.

The government has stressed the difficulties of rooting out the Islamist rebels from their desert strongholds and recapturing an areas twice the size of France.

However, political doubts about the operation are also emerging in Paris, Ames added.

A number of opposition figures have questioned the level of preparation for the ground operation.

"We have entered a new phase that was not foreseen, and today we are confronted with very high risks," said former Prime Minister Alain Juppe. "I'm afraid we have entered into a spiral that we will struggle to control."

Meanwhile, the French military seeks to identify a soldier whose picture wearing a death's head mask has gone viral on the internet. “This is unacceptable behavior,” said French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard.

The military's reaction underscores France's concern to avoid behavior that could alienate the Malian population.

Tristan McConnell reported from Diabaly. Paul Ames reported from Brussels.

More on GlobalPost: Diabaly: French and Malian troops enter key central town