France’s President Francois Hollande Tuesday said 750 French troops have joined the Mali offensive and their numbers will be boosted, on a visit to the Gulf overshadowed by the crisis in the African state.
French forces have, since Friday, been supporting an offensive by Malian government troops against Islamist rebels which have controlled the north of the vast country since April 2012.
The military intervention has driven Islamists fighters from their strongholds in the north but the rebels Monday pushed farther into the government-held south, seizing the town of Diabali, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital.
Hollande flew early Tuesday into the oil-rich United Arab Emirates where soon after his arrival he held talks with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in Abu Dhabi.
Mauritania, Mali’s western neighbour, ordered its troops to seal the border to prevent Islamists fighters from escaping into their territory.
Hollande was later to hold meetings with the rulers and senior officials from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi during his one-day visit.
On the presidential plane, Hollande’s entourage said that some 700 soldiers in the French base in Abu Dhabi along with six Rafale jets stationed there were on standby to participate in the Mali offensive if needed.
By a quirk of timing, Hollande’s trip to the United Arab Emirates is aimed primarily at selling Rafale fighter jets like those that have been involved in bombing Islamist rebel bases in Mali.
France is keen to make its first foreign sale of the Rafale, which has struggled to find buyers, to support a project that has cost tens of billions of euros.
A diplomatic source said no contract would be signed during Hollande’s visit but the potential sale was being discussed.
France is also keen to ensure oil firm Total retains a place in the Gulf state’s largest onshore oil concession.
The concession is currently held by the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (ADCO), a consortium of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) (60 percent), international oil majors BP, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total (9.5 percent stake each) and Portugal’s Partex (2 percent).
Plans for Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to accompany Hollande were scrapped but the high-powered delegation still includes government ministers and leaders of several blue-chip companies.
In Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, Hollande was to hold talks with President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahayan.
In Dubai, he is slated to meet Sheikh Mohammad bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of the booming emirate, where he will address a press conference and also meet members of the French community — the largest expatriate group with 18,000 members.
More than 500 French companies are based in the UAE, which had nearly four billion euros of investments in France last year.
Also on the agenda will be energy cooperation, the Syrian crisis and the impasse on the Iranian nuclear standoff, French officials said.
Human Rights Watch has called on Hollande to bring up the issue of human rights in the Gulf country — both during private talks and publicly.