Paris - The first contingent of an African force being deployed in Mali has begun moving towards the centre of the country, where French troops are seeking to help Mali's army push back Islamist fighters, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday.
"A certain number of [African] forces have already started to move towards central towns," Fabius told a parliamentary committee.
Fabius said a total of 1 000 African troops, from West African countries and from Chad had been deployed in the Malian capital Bamako and neighbouring Niger.
He did not specify how many of these troops were moving towards the frontline of the conflict.
Fabius said the soldiers from Chad would be very important. "They have proven qualities and they know the terrain," he said.
France has been pushing for months for the deployment of an African force but was forced to send its own troops in a vanguard role after Islamists seized the central town of Konna earlier this month, raising fears Bamako could be vulnerable to attack.
"The African force is deploying much faster than expected," Fabius said. "Obviously that poses a number of logistical difficulties but I have to say that I have seen a very big effort by our African friends."
The UN has authorised the deployment of a 3 300-strong force under the auspices of West African grouping Ecowas. But the involvement of Chad, which has committed up to 2 000 troops, means the force could now be much bigger.