Paris — France is planning to triple the size of its force in Mali to a total of 2,500 troops, defence sources said Tuesday in the clearest sign yet that Paris is preparing for a drawn-out campaign in its former colony.
"There will be a gradual build-up to a figure of 2,500," a source close to Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a revelation that points to French forces playing a far bigger -- and inevitably far longer - role in the campaign against Islamist groups in northern Mali than previously indicated.
President Francois Hollande said earlier on Tuesday that there were currently 750 French soldiers in the former colony but acknowledged that this figure would increase.
The plan to deploy a force of up to 2,500 men is at odds with suggestions by government ministers that the involvement of French ground troops would be limited to protecting Mali's capital, Bamako.
According to Le Monde and other French media, France is also planning to base a substantial contingent of troops at Mopti in central Mali, from where they will be able to carry out operations in the north of the country.
Until now, ministers have portrayed France's involvement as restricted to stopping the Islamists' push south, with the subsequent task of regaining control of the north to be handed over to the Malian army with the support of troops from neighbouring West African states.
Military analysts have described this scenario as optimistic given the limited capacity of the Malian army and the West African forces' lack of experience in combatting battle-hardened, well-armed guerrilla fighters in unfamiliar desert terrain.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday that he thought involvement in the Mali campaign would essentially be aerial and claimed France's mission could be completed in a matter of weeks.
The mission in Mali has enjoyed widespread support in France, though some critics have raised concerns that the government has not done enough to lay out its end game.
Former Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard said Tuesday he supported the operation but that it was launching France into a "10-year brawl" against Islamic extremists in the Sahel desert region of North and West Africa.
"This is all very difficult, there is no foregone conclusion," Rocard told France Inter radio. "We will lose men, there will be catastrophes, there will be attacks in the country, it will all be pretty frightening."
Former interior minister Claude Gueant, a close ally of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, warned that France and its allies would be facing a tough fight in Mali.
"The jihadists who set up in northern Mali are people whose numbers have greatly increased in the space of a year," Gueant told Canal Plus television.
He said they were "powerfully armed" with many weapons taken from Libya after the collapse of Moamer Kadhafi's regime and well-organised, trained and coordinated.
"They are very mobile, very tactical, they are like fish in the water in their desert world," he said.
"This will not be an easy war, that's true. The question for us will be know how far to go and where to stop." (AFP)