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First of 900 Nigerian troops to Mali 'in next 24 hours'

By Ola Awoniyi

ABUJA (AFP) - The first of a planned 900 Nigerian troops will deploy to Mali in the next 24 hours as part of a UN-mandated African force aimed at helping the country battle Islamists, a defence spokesman said Tuesday.

"The president approved the deployment of a battalion, and in the next 24 hours a company of the battalion will be deployed," Colonel Mohammed Yerima told journalists. "The remainder will be deployed later."

He added that Nigeria's total commitment will be around 900 troops, or 300 more than previously announced. The first company will include 190 personnel, he said.

The planned 3,300-strong African force is to be commanded by a Nigerian, Major General Shehu Usman Abdulkadir, previously his country's chief of army standards and evaluation.

Nigeria announced at the weekend that a Nigerian military technical team as well as the commander were already on the ground carrying out support and preparation work.

The country, the continent's most populous nation and largest oil producer, has the biggest military in 15-nation regional bloc ECOWAS, which is organising the African intervention.

France began an air assault against Islamists who control northern Mali last week after the extremists took a key central town and threatened to push further south.

French defence sources said Tuesday that Paris is planning to triple the size of its force in Mali to a total of 2,500 troops.

The Islamists' advance has raised fears that Mali could become a safe haven for Al Qaeda-linked extremists and criminal gangs, posing risks to the region and beyond.

Meanwhile, west African army chiefs met in Bamako on Tuesday on plans to send the African troops. A summit of west African leaders is also to be held on Saturday.

Since the French air offensive was launched on Friday, the Islamists have fled three key towns under their control: Timbuktu, where residents have suffered some of the worst abuses of the past 10 months, as well as Gao, also in the north, and Douentza in Mali's centre.

Though driven from their strongholds by French Rafale fighter jets, the Islamists struck back Monday in the government-held south, capturing the small town of Diabaly some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Bamako.

The African force had not been due to deploy before September, but the Islamists' advance further south last week, sparking the French assault, led to expedited plans.

Regional countries have since been pledging troops for the force, with most committing 500. Nigeria has so far committed the largest number.

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