West African defense chiefs have begun talks in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, to discuss "boosting" an African force in Mali. Meanwhile, French troops have secured a key area near the northern city Gao.
The meeting of defense ministers is meant to ensure the "boosting of the (MISMA) International Support Mission for Mali," said Ivory Coast army General Soumaila Bakayoko on Saturday. Ivory Coast currently holds the rotating presidency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) coalition.
Bakayoko said mobilizing more troops as swiftly as possible would help MISMA "accomplish its mission" of bringing northern and eastern areas of the country back under government control. Several rebel factions, including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) with alleged al Qaeda ties, are vying for control of these areas.
Saturday's talks should determine exactly how many troops each country in the 15-member bloc will dispatch.
Nearly 1,000 African troops out of a promised 4,500 are already on the ground across Mali, Ivorian Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said.
Koffi also welcomed the logistical support provided by the West to shuttle troops and equipment into and around Mali, which he said would "allow MISMA to become operational."
The deployment of African forces has been delayed by financing and logistical problems. However, Chad, though not a member of ECOWAS, has deployed 2,000 troops to Mali's eastern neighbor Niger to join a contingent of Niger soldiers.
It was not clear whether they would cross the border, which lies more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Gao.
Meanwhile, Malian and French troops Saturday regained control over strategic posts near the city of Gao, according to Mali's state radio. The town has been held by Islamists since June 2012.
"Malian and French troops took control of the bridge at the entrance of Gao at Wabaria town, and of the international airport of Gao," Malian state radio Channel 2 reported.
France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement Saturday that French forces had taken control of an area around the airport and bridge, with the French AFP news agency reporting that sources close to le Drian said "combat was continuing" within the city itself.
hc/msh (AFP, dpa)