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Mali leaders thank French for help battling militants

US offers support for mission as Malian troops take two towns.

Mali's Islamic leaders yesterday praised the French-led intervention in the country to fight the insurgents that control two-thirds of the West African nation.

It came as the United States said it was ready to offer support to the mission.

France launched air strikes on Mali's north on January 11 in support of the domestic army in its attempts to take back control from the Islamist militants who seek to impose a strict version of Sharia.

Malian troops seized Diabaly and Douentza yesterday, after reclaiming Konna on Friday, according to the French defence ministry.

"The intervention of France in Mali has nothing to do with a fight against Islam," said Mohamoud Dicko, the president of the Islamic High Council of Mali. "It is a fight against crime and terrorism."

African troops will take part in the mission, with troops arriving in the country this week. The continental force may reach 5,500 soldiers, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said this week.

The contingent, planned by the African Union before the French strikes began, was initially expected to number only about 3,300.

The US was willing to provide support including funding, logistics, medicine and transportation to the mission if African leaders requested it, Michael Battle, the US ambassador to the African Union, said yesterday.

"We have a lot of capacity to provide support," he said.

Instability in Mali threatened the wider region, especially neighbouring Niger and Algeria, Mr Battle added. "Their peace and stability is dependent on stability and good governance in Mali."

African leaders will discuss the intervention in Mali during an African Union summit in Addis Ababa next week, during which donors will also hold a funding conference for the mission, Mr Battle said.

Mali's government has extended by three months a state of emergency declared nearly two weeks ago, according to a statement on the prime minister's website.

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