French President Francois Hollande, on a visit to the Gulf, Tuesday defended his country’s intervention in Mali, saying it had prevented the African country from being overrun by “terrorists.”
Speaking to reporters as he arrived at Peace Camp in Abu Dhabi -- his country’s only military base in the region -- Hollande said it will take at least another week before an African force is deployed in Mali.
The military intervention has driven Islamists fighters from their strongholds in the north but the rebels Monday pushed farther into the government-held south, into the town of Diabaly, 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the capital.
“France will continue to have ground and air forces,” Hollande said, adding that “new strikes overnight achieved their goal.”
A security source in Mali said Tuesday that French forces had carried out overnight air strikes on Diabaly.
Defense sources told AFP on Tuesday that France’s intervention force in the former colony will gradually increase in size to reach 2,500 troops.
The French president also intimated that Chad and the UAE could participate in the operation.
“It is possible that the UAE could decide to immediately intervene, either in terms of logistic or financial support.”
Belgium announced Tuesday that it will contribute two C-130 transport planes and a medivac helicopter to back up France's offensive.
The meetings by Hollande, which include the UAE’s president and head of the armed forces, also could test Gulf Arab support for France’s attempts to weaken Islamist insurgents in Mali, including airstrikes launched last week.
The Gulf states have taken a higher military and political profile in the region following the Arab Spring uprising, including crackdowns on Islamist-inspired groups by the Western-backed Gulf leaders. Qatar and the UAE joined the NATO-led military campaign to topple Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and the Gulf states have been leading the call to supply Syrian rebels with more powerful weapons.
The French president also opened talks with top leaders in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday in hopes of pushing ahead efforts to sell up to 60 Rafale fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and strengthen French ties in Gulf energy and defense industries.
Hollande is hoping for a breakthrough in the stalled talks over the fighter jet sale by France’s Dassault Aviation. The company has been in negotiations with the UAE for years in efforts to sell the Rafale, which is currently used only by France. The UAE is a major customer for U.S. warplanes and military equipment.
In late 2011, a senior UAE defense official cast doubts on the possible Rafale sale by claiming the Dassault was seeking “uncompetitive and unworkable commercial terms.”
Future Energy Summit
Later, Hollande opened a Future Energy Summit, which brought together policymakers and experts in green technology, by warning the world is headed for an environmental “catastrophe” unless leaders begin serious work on renewable energy and other eco-friendly initiatives.
Hollande urged for more investments in renewable energy and efforts to renovate older cities for greater energy efficiency. He added that he hoped Paris could host an international climate conference in 2015.