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Mali

Germany to send transport planes to Mali

Germany has said it is sending two transport planes to Mali to help shore up an initial battle against Islamist insurgents. French ground troops already in Mali were set to engage directly with the rebels Wednesday.

The German government on Wednesday pledged two Transall military transport planes to fly troops of the 15-nation west African grouping ECOWAS to the Malian capital Bamako.

Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the two C-160 planes would depart once technical details had been resolved.

"Germany will provide logistical support based on the situation on the ground," de Maiziere told reporters at a hastily-called press conference in Berlin.

Visiting Berlin on Wednesday, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara was told by Chancellor Angela Merkel that the Bundeswehr transporters were being sent at short notice. There was "great time pressure," Merkel said.

"Terrorism in Mali is not just a threat to Africa, but also a threat to Europe," Merkel said, referring to Western fears that northern Mali could become al Qaeda's leading global safe haven.

She added that Germany would also contribute to an EU plan to send 200 military advisers to Mali.

Quattara urges Europe to back intervention

Ouattara said Bamako was only a staging post en route to other airfields inside Mali. He called on "all Europeans" to back the French military intervention begun late last week when the Islamists pushed south toward Bamako by seizing the town of Konna.

Chiefs of staff within ECOWAS were finalizing plans on Wednesday for the UN-mandated deployment of 3,300 ECOWAS troops, he added.

"We want to quickly deploy the [ECOWAS] troops to assist the Malian troops," he said. Mali's population must be liberated from "terrorists" so that humanitarian aid could be delivered.

A first contingent of 190 Nigerian troops was due to arrive in Bamako late Wednesday, according to the French news agency AFP.

Westerwelle: living up responsibilites

De Maiziere - at the Berlin press conference - said France's own transport needs were already met with the help of other allies such as Britain, which sent two C-130 transport planes to carry French equipment.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who attended the press conference, said Germany's support "shows that we are living up to our responsibilities."

Westerwelle also pledged one million euros ($1.3 million) in humanitarian aid for Mali civilians fleeing the unrest. It would mainly be delivered via the German aid organisation Welthungerhilfe.

The UN and other aid agencies estimate 144,000 civilians caught up in the conflict have fled to neighboring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria. Another 230,000 are internally displaced within Mali.

France intensifies engagement

Meanwhile on Wednesday, French ground forces were reported to be moving north towards the front line with the rebels. French army chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud said the troops were set to enter combat with the rebels imminently.

"In the coming hours - but I cannot tell you if it's in one hour or 72 hours - yes, of course we will be fighting them directly," Guillaud said in an interview with Europe 1 radio.

French news agency AFP cited a Malian security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying that French special forces were already in "close-quarter combat" with rebels in the contested town of Diabaly.

Defense Minister Jean-Yves le Drian acknowledged that ground troops would face a difficult task, particularly in the west of the country where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - one of several active rebel groups in Mali - is said to be best fortified.

"It's tough. We were aware from the beginning it would be a very difficult operation," Le Drian said.

President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday that French troops would remain in Mali until stability was restored, but said he hoped they might be ready to depart "in the coming days or weeks."

rc, msh/ipj (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters, epd)