BAMAKO - French troops on Sunday advanced towards Mali's Islamist-held north as Russia and Canada offered to help transport French and African soldiers to boost the Paris-led offensive.
The progress towards the jihadist strongholds came amid reports that the Al-Qaeda linked militants were abandoning some of their positions and converging on the mountainous region of Kidal, their northernmost bastion, 1,500 kilometres from Bamako and near the border with Algeria.
"The deployment towards the north... which began 24 hours ago, is on course with troops inside the towns of Niono and Sevare," Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Dosseur told reporters.
Niono is about 350 kilometres north-east of the Malian capital and 60 kilometres south of Diabaly, which was seized nearly a week ago by Islamists and then heavily bombed by French planes.
Sevare has a strategically important airport which could help serve as a base for operations further north. It is about 630 kilometres north-east of Bamako.
The town is also near Konna, whose seizure by Islamists on January 10 sparked the French military intervention in the former colony against the forces occupying northern Mali for about nine months.
"We are in a phase of pushing forward," said a French lieutenant-colonel in charge of operations in Niono and the town of Diabaly, whose fate remained unclear on Sunday amid conflicting claims over whether the Islamists there had been routed.
"In Diabaly, the situation is not very clear but it appears the rebel fighters have left the town," he said, identifying himself as only Frederic.
The region where the towns are located is known for housing the most battle-hardened and fanatical Islamists.
French-led Malian troops patrolled the outskirts of Diabaly Sunday in a show of muscle.
"This mission of observation and dissuasion is mainly aimed at stopping any infiltration southwards by the militants," a Malian security official said on condition of anonymity.
"The jihadists are increasingly leaving other areas to go towards Kidal which is a hilly region," another security official said.
Kidal was the first town seized by an amalgam of Al-Qaeda linked militants and Tuareg separatist groups in March last year. The two sides then had a falling out and the Islamists have since gained the upper hand in the vast desert north.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Sunday that Russia had offered to help transport troops and supplies to Mali and Canada had offered help to bring African troops to the country.
Only about 100 soldiers from a planned 5,800- strong African force have so far reached Mali, while France said has 2,000 soldiers already on the ground.
Asked on Europe 1 radio about how African troops would be transported, Fabius said "there is transportation that will be partly by the Africans themselves, partly by the Europeans and partly by the Canadians."
"And the Russians have proposed to provide means of transport for the French, so it's fairly diverse," he said.
The announcement came a day after an emergency West African summit of the ECOWAS regional bloc called on the United Nations "to immediately provide financial and logistical backing for the deployment of MISMA", the African force.
African troop deployments have always been long-drawn affairs. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "The truth is that ECOWAS has no money to transport its troops".
Fabius, who also attended the summit, said it was time for the Africans to take charge of the task of halting the extremist advance "as soon as possible".
"It is vital that the maximum number of countries worldwide contribute" to the effort, Fabius said, speaking ahead of a donors' conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on January 29.
Germany Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Sunday responded to the appeal, pledging extra aid at the meeting but without setting an amount.
"The African troops need financial aid. During the donors' conference in Addis Ababa at the end of the month, Germany will assume its responsibilities," he wrote in the Sunday paper Bild am Sonntag.