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German planes set off to aid Mali troop shipments

German military transport planes have flown to Mali to assist French-led efforts to combat Islamist rebels. The aircraft will transport West African troops being scrambled after Paris embarked on an air offensive.

German military officials said two Transall C-160 planes had been sent to Mali late on Thursday to support a ground offensive to push back Islamist rebels.

The planes, each carrying a crew of seven, departed from the Hohn Air Force Base in northern Germany, to be loaded with medical equipment in France before flying on to the Malian capital, Bamako.

A third plane was set to depart from Landsberg, Bavaria, on Friday, according to the German news agency DPA.

The aircraft were to be used to carry troops from a member of the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, with each plane capable of carrying 90 men.

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Video: EU pledges help to Mali

France plans to send a total of 2,500, with some 1,400 of those already in the country. Some French troops are already reported to be in combat with the rebels alongside the regular Malian army.

Meanwhile, the United States has said it will support the airlift to deliver more troops and supplies. While France's NATO allies have promised logistical support, they have held back from supplying combat personnel.

EU nations agreed on Thursday to deploy up to 500 military personnel to assist in training, led by France's General Francois Lecointre.

Ground offensive underway

French forces began their intervention in the conflict last week with airstrikes against targets in the north of Mali. A counter-offensive by the Islamists saw them capture the town of Diabaly.

French troops sought to retake the town, but were said to be holding back from an intensive assault because the rebels had taken shelter in civilian homes.

The first West African troops, including Togolese soldiers, arrived in Mali on Thursday to reinforce the French-led intervention. Some 3,000 ECOWAS soldiers in all are to be sent to shore up the International Mission for Support to Mali (MISMA).

Nigeria, the African continent's most populous nation, which has been battling an Islamist insurgency of its own territory, is to send a total of 900.

Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso have pledged 500 soldiers each, with Benin to deploy 300 men. Guinea and Ghana are also to deploy more than 100 troops.

Meanwhile, Chad - which is not an ECOWAS member - has said it will send 2,000.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR on Friday estimated that up to 700,000 people could be displaced by the fighting inside Mali, 3000,000 within the country and 400,000 as external refugees, in the coming months. Some 144,000 people have fled the country in the past year, the agency said on Tuesday.

rc/ipj (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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