MARKALA, Mali (Reuters) - A contingent of 160 soldiers from Burkina Faso has deployed to Markala in central Mali, becoming the first West African troops to link up with French and Malian forces moving against al Qaeda-allied Islamist rebels occupying the north.
A Reuters correspondent in Markala, 237 km (147 miles) from the capital Bamako, saw the Burkinabe soldiers on Thursday near a military base in the dusty town of crumbling colonial era buildings and mud huts on the banks of the Niger River.
For nearly two weeks, French aircraft have been bombarding rebel positions, vehicles and stores in the centre and north of the West African state as a ground force of African troops assembles to launch a U.N.-backed military intervention against the Islamist fighters.
This force, expected to eventually number more than 5,000, is comprised mostly of units from member countries of the West African regional grouping ECOWAS, but also includes soldiers from Chad who are experienced in desert warfare.
"Depending on logistics, we could have more ECOWAS deployments soon," said Aboudou Toure Cheaka, ECOWAS special envoy to Mali.
Western and African leaders have expressed strong support for the currently French-led campaign to expel the al Qaeda-allied Islamist fighters from northern Mali, amid fears they could use this vast lawless zone as a launchpad to carry out international terrorist attacks.
From January 11, France has sent aircraft and more than 2,000 troops into its former French colony to help the Malian army beat back a surprise offensive by the Islamist rebels which threatened the capital Bamako in the south. French and Malian troops have retaken a number of central towns.
But serious questions have arisen over whether the African force being deployed has the weapons, equipment and training needed to maintain a sustained campaign against the rebels in a desert and mountain battleground the size of Texas.
Fears of reprisal attacks by Islamist extremists in Africa and the West have also been sharply raised by last week's brief but bloody seizure of a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria by al Qaeda-linked guerrillas opposing the French action in Mali. At least 37 foreign hostages were killed in the incident, which ended when Algerian forces stormed the plant.
International donors are due to meet in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on January 29 to discuss the African military operation in Mali, and France said they would be asked to provide about 340 million euros.
The Islamist alliance in the north holds the major towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. It groups al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM and the Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA.
Military experts say a fast, efficient deployment of the African ground force is essential to sustain the momentum of the French operations in Mali, and the issue will be high on the agenda of an African Union summit in Addis Ababa this weekend.