Feeling increasingly alone in its war against Islamists in Mali, France is canvassing allies for more help, including combat troops.
As concerns grow that the expanding conflict could drag allies in deeper, France's Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, dropped a thinly veiled hint on Thursday at an emergency meeting with his European counterparts that his country needed boots on the ground while insisting that it has wide backing.
"The French aren't alone, they are the trailblazers," he said, after European ministers approved a contingent of more than 200 military trainers for Mali. He added: "It is completely possible – but this is up to them – that others or the same European countries decide to offer not just logistical support, but also to make soldiers available."
The bravado of the sudden intervention last Friday, popular with many in France, appears to be turning to a hint of bitterness that allies have not backed them more, with high-profile figures and ordinary citizens complaining the Mali mission is "France alone."
That sentiment directed at allies is being expressed in France by people commenting on Twitter and by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who told Britain's Channel 4 France is waiting for British help. "I beg you, don't leave the French alone," he said.
France, which now has 1,400 troops in Mali and is expecting to send 1,100 more, has already asked allies, including Canada, to extend and expand their military support.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday the United States will provide indirect assistance such as intelligence and transport help for France, and pre-deployment training and airlift for African troops.
Also on Thursday, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Andrew MacDougall, said that no decision had been taken, but that the Canadian government would review the needs with France in the next few days.
On Wednesday, French President François Hollande personally asked Mr. Harper to extend Canada's contribution of one C-17 transport plane beyond the week Ottawa offered, as well as to extend more air-transport assistance. While Mr. Harper has sought to set strict limits on Canadian involvement, he is under pressure to do more for an ally in combat.
Some of Mali's neighbours, fearing the threat of Islamist extremists to their own countries and facing a flow of refugees across the border, also want Canada to send more military help. "The crisis in Mali is a disaster for us," said Niger's ambassador to Canada, Fadjimata Sidibé. "I think Canada can do more concerning this crisis in Mali."
The French, meanwhile, have been privately grumbling. An official privy to the emergency discussions said the allies have been "incredibly slow [to step up] and incredibly stingy."
Others near official circles concur. "I would like to see more support for the French operation," said Eric Denécé, director of the French Centre for Intelligence Research in Paris, and a former intelligence official. "We see once again, there is no European union, no common European defence – not the British, nor the Germans nor the Italians – nobody is reacting. Concerning Canada, this is funny, because our Canadian friends say they are going to send one plane to help us, which is absolutely nothing."
France launched airstrikes and sent troops into Mali last Friday to repel Islamists linked to al-Qaeda who took the north of the country in April and began a southward offensive on government-controlled towns in the past weeks.
On Thursday, French special forces inched closer to the al-Qaeda-held town of Diabaly, fighting erupted in another centre and army troops raced to protect a third as the Islamic extremists controlling northern Mali ceded no ground, digging into the areas they already occupy and sending out scouts to widen their reach.
At the same time, Canadian ambassador Louis de Lorimier and his U.S. counterpart, Mary Beth Leonard, met in Bamako with Mali's President, Dioncounda Traoré, to press a call for the African nation to plot a return to democracy, insisting it is key to lasting stability. A military coup last March ousted elected president Amadou Touré, and Bamako is now led by a transitional government.
There are some signs of coming reinforcements, and new pledges of support from Western allies. A West African force of 3,300, from nations in the regional bloc ECOWAS, is being prepared to join the French in Mali. And on Wednesday, Chad said it would send 2,000 troops.
But none of France's allies in Europe or NATO have shown any appetite for joining the combat. After operations in Afghanistan and Libya, most face war-weary publics and military budget cuts.
"No deployment of Italian military forces in the theatre of operations is envisaged," said Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Guilio Terzi on Thursday. Earlier this week, Germany's Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, was categorical: "Sending in German fighting units is not up for debate," he said.