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West African leaders have been told they must be involved in the military offensive to drive Islamist insurgents out of Mali.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France had been obliged to send in troops “very, very rapidly otherwise there would be no more Mali”.

Laurent fabius has told a meeting in the Ivory Coast that the deployment of African soldiers is now a priority.

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara also called for more support for Mali.

He said “the hour has come for a broader commitment by the major powers and more countries and organizations… to show greater solidarity with France and Africa in the total and multi-faceted war against terrorism in Mali”.

France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Saturday that 2,000 troops were now on the ground in Mali, and the final total could top the 2,500 originally pledged.

The troops will stay in Mali for as long as necessary “to defeat terrorism” in West Africa, President Francois Hollande has said.

Islamist fighters on Friday withdrew from two towns in central Mali following French air strikes.

Officials say the Islamists have now left the southern town of Diabaly, which they took on Monday, while Mali’s army has also recaptured Konna, which was seized by rebels triggering the French intervention.

West African leaders have been told they must be involved in the military offensive to drive Islamist insurgents out of Mali

West African leaders have been told they must be involved in the military offensive to drive Islamist insurgents out of Mali

Laurent Fabius said upon his arrival in the Ivorian capital Abidjan that it was time for the African nations to take over “as soon as possible”.

“France was obliged to intervene very, very rapidly, otherwise there would have been no more Mali,” he was quoted by the Agence France Presse as saying.

“But it is well understood that it is the Africans that must pick up the baton,” he added.

Laurent Fabius also confirmed that France would lead a European mission next month to help train and rebuild the Malian army.

He has urged Africa’s international partners to help with logistical and financial support and said a donors’ meeting in Addis Ababa at the end of the month would be crucial in addressing the needs of Mali and the region.

The first 100 troops of an African force – from Togo and Nigeria – landed in Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Thursday.

They are being deployed under a UN Security Council resolution.

The original UN-backed strategy to reclaim northern Mali from Islamist rebels had France – among other Western powers – providing logistical support to an African-led force, adds our correspondent, but it is now clear that French troops will remain at the frontline of operations.

Nigeria will lead the West African force, with Chad, Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo also sending soldiers.

Nigeria says it will increase its forces to 1,200.

Chad has confirmed it will send 2,000 soldiers and it may also contribute its air force, considered one of the most effective on the continent.

Foreign forces in Mali

  • 2,000 French troops on the ground in Mali, with 500 or more to come
  • French Mirage and Rafale jets, Gazelle helicopters
  • Chad to send 2,000 troops
  • Nigeria to send 1,200 troops; Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo expected to send 500 each, and Benin 300
  • Ghana and Guinea also to send troops
  • UK providing two C17 cargo planes for French effort
  • Belgium and Denmark also sending transport planes
  • US to provide communications help

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Egyptians are awaiting the official results of a referendum on a controversial draft constitution.

Early unofficial results suggested more than 60% of voters said “yes” to the document, which is endorsed by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

But the electoral commission must first investigate opposition allegations of voting fraud.

Egypt has seen large and occasionally violent demonstrations by the opposing sides in the past few weeks.

If the constitution passes, elections must take place within two months and the deep polarization in the country is likely to continue.

In the meantime, legislative powers will pass to parliament’s upper chamber, the Islamist-controlled Shura Council.

State media reports of the results following Saturday’s second and final round of the referendum suggested that some 63% of voters had backed the charter. Turnout was low, estimated at 30%.

Egyptians are awaiting the official results of a referendum on a controversial draft constitution

Egyptians are awaiting the official results of a referendum on a controversial draft constitution

The electoral commission said it was compiling results from both rounds and that no time had been set for a confirmation of the outcome.

One member of the commission, Mohamed el-Tanobly, told Agence France-Presse it was examining all the allegations of irregularities so that the referendum “really reflects the will of the Egyptian people”.

The opposition National Salvation Front said on Sunday the vote had been marred by “fraud and violations”.

It said these included polling stations opening late, Islamists seeking to influence voters and a lack of judges to supervise.

Spokesman Amr Hamzawy told a news conference the National Salvation Front had urged the commission to investigate the irregularities but he also appeared to anticipate a “yes” vote.

He said: “We do not consider this constitution legitimate. We will continue to attempt to bring down the constitution peacefully and democratically.”

The opposition says the draft constitution fails to protect the freedoms and human rights that were sought in the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule last year.

It accuses the president of pushing through a text that favors Islamists and does not sufficiently protect the rights of women or Christians.

But the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, said it hoped the “yes” vote would begin to heal divisions and bring stability.

On the Freedom and Justice Party Facebook page, its leader, Saad al-Katatni, wrote that its members were “extending our hands to all political parties and all national forces”, adding: “We will all start a new page.”

However, the crisis is continuing to affect the country’s economic status. On Monday, the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded Egypt’s long-term credit rating because of the ongoing tension.

Lowering the country’s long-term rating to B- from B, it said: “A further downgrade is possible if a significant worsening of the domestic political situation results in a sharp deterioration of economic indicators such as foreign exchange reserves or the government’s deficit.”

The latest unrest began after Mohamed Morsi issued a decree on November 22 stripping the judiciary of the power to challenge his decisions.

After an outcry, the president revoked much of the decree, but he refused to back down on the referendum on the draft constitution.