The first troops from Mali's neighbors are expected Thursday, nearly a week after French forces launched their military operation to dislodge al-Qaida-linked militants from a harsh desert region the same size as France.
Aboudou Toure Cheaka, special representative for the president of the Economic Community of West African States commission, said the troops from Nigeria would be arriving sometime Thursday and forces from Niger are to be deployed soon along the Niger-Mali border.
France expects to ramp up to a total of 2,500 soldiers that will include French Foreign Legionnaires. It has committed helicopter gunships, fighter jets, surveillance planes and refueling tankers in the fight against the Islamists who seized control of northern Mali last year.
EU foreign ministers on Thursday approved sending a military training mission to Mali.
No combat role is envisioned for the EU training mission. Instead, it will train soldiers, provide advice on command and control procedures, and offer instruction on human rights and the protection of civilians.
A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies with the majority of its 15 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed in April 2012, when Islamist extremists took over the main cities in the country's north amid disarray following a military coup, and began enforcing their version of strict Shariah law.
Security experts warn that the extremists are carving out their own territory in northern Mali from where they can plot terror attacks in Africa and Europe. Estimates of how many fighters the Islamists have range from less than 1,000 to several thousand. The militants are well-armed and funded and include recruits from other countries.
Despite training from U.S. and other Western trainers, the Mali army has been ineffective in fighting the militants.
Last December, the U.N. Security Council passed a cautious resolution, outlining steps that needed to be taken before an international military intervention, one which diplomats said would not occur before at least September.
But in a surprise move last week, French President Francois Hollande authorized airstrikes in Mali to stop a sudden southward push by three Islamist rebel groups. The Islamists warned that France had "opened the doors of hell" and that all French nationals would pay, as would any country that helped the military intervention.
American officials say they are providing intelligence to its European ally and are considering deploying American aircraft to land in Mali for airlift or logistical support. The U.S. is offering possible surveillance drones, too, but won't entertain notions of sending American troops to keep terrorists from carving out a safe haven like they did in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"We share the same goals as the French and of the states in the region. We support what the French are attempting to do," said Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, speaking Wednesday at the Wilson Center in Washington.