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Regional leaders meet again on Mali crisis as Islamists flee from city

(CNN) — West African leaders meet Saturday to finalize plans for their troops‘ role in Mali alongside French soldiers battling Islamist militants in the north.

The meeting in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan will address the conflict in Mali and how the region can work with the international community to resolve it

Various heads of state will attend, including Burkina Faso and Nigeria, according to the Economic Community Of West African States, the regional bloc.

The bloc has 3,300 regional troops on standby awaiting deployment.

France intervened in Mali, its former colony, last week after militants started advancing toward the capital, forcing world leaders to fast-track decisions on resolving the crisis.

French and Malian forces retook a key city from militants Friday, a French source said.

Konna, the city recaptured, was the de facto line of government control. Militants said they seized it January 10, prompting

>France to start its offensive over fears that fighters were inching toward the capital.

The fighting in Mali has captured the world’s attention.

It was one of the most successful democracies in Africa until last year, when a coup toppled the president and Islamists capitalized on the chaos and established themselves in the north.

There, they imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law, banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also damaged historic tombs and shrines.

France President Francois Hollande said the mission of the offensive is to “destroy” the terrorist groups that have taken root.

Despite its unilateral move to strike, France is seeking help from its regional allies and the international community.

Such assistance has its perils.

After Algeria allowed France to use its airspace to take on insurgents, militants angry about the move stormed a gas field in eastern Algeria and took hostages in what is now an .

French Ambassador to Mali Christian Rouyer reiterated the need for the French offensive.

“We had a friendly country that was on the verge of dying,” he said Friday. “It was absolutely necessary to act with urgency. We did it, I believe, with full knowledge of the reasons.”

Leaders from several countries have offered troops or logistical support.

The European Union has approved a training mission. The Canadians and British are deploying military transport aircraft. Nigeria is set to deploy soldiers as part of a U.N.-mandated African force to fight the insurgents.

U.S. policy prohibits direct military aid to Mali because the fledgling government is a result of a coup. No support can go to the Malian military directly until leaders are chosen through an election, said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman.

So far, the United States has only shared intelligence from satellites and intercepted signals with the French, defense officials said.

U.S. trainers will be in African nations to prepare forces set to be deployed in Mali. Trainers will be in Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo and Ghana.

As the conflict rages, the United Nations is warning of a record number of Malians fleeing to neighboring nations.

The unrest could soon displace up to 700,000 in the country and around the region, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency.



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