French military vehicles drive on a road outside Markala in Mali. The United States government and several African leaders have thrown their diplomatic weight behind a plan to expel Islamist rebels from the West African country.

Diabaly/Segou - The United States and African leaders threw their full diplomatic weight on Wednesday behind a campaign to expel Islamist rebels from Mali, as French air strikes harried the al-Qaeda-allied fighters in their strongholds.

For nearly two weeks, French jets and helicopters have been hitting carefully selected targets around rebel-held Malian towns such as Gao and Timbuktu, while African troops gather for a planned ground offensive against the Islamist forces.

Last week's bloody seizure of a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria by Islamist guerrillas opposing the French action in Mali - in which at least 37 foreign hostages were killed - heightened fears in Africa and the West that Mali's north could become a launchpad for international attacks by al-Qaeda.

After halting a surprise Islamist offensive southwards towards Mali's capital Bamako, French ground troops and Malian army soldiers backed by French armoured vehicles are securing locations recaptured from the rebels in the last few days.

At one of these, Diabaly, a town of mud-brick homes 350km north of Bamako, jubilant residents welcomed foreign reporters and showed them munitions abandoned by the fleeing Islamist fighters, including several six-foot long shells.

Charred rebel pick-up trucks destroyed by the French air strikes were also visible amid the mango trees.

The UN-mandated intervention in Mali was originally conceived as “African-led, African-owned”, but with the Malian army in disarray and African neighbours scrambling to deploy troops, France has taken the lead in the operation.

Amid widening international support for the Mali operation, the European Union is preparing a 450-member mission to help train the Malian army while the United States and European governments are helping fly in French troops and equipment.

Voicing US backing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the internationally-backed intervention in Mali as a response to “a very serious, ongoing threat” posed by the regional affiliate of al-Qaeda and its local allies.

“We are in for a struggle but it is a necessary struggle. We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven,” she said in Washington, referring to Malian elements of al-Qaeda as not only a “terrorist syndicate” but also a “criminal enterprise”.

African governments, critical in the past of what they saw as meddling by former colonial powers like France, are now embracing the French-led action as a way to avoid a broadening Islamist insurgency in Africa.

“All of the African continent, all its heads of state, are happy about the speed with which France acted and with France's political courage,” African Union chairperson Thomas Boni Yayi, who is president of Benin, said during a visit to Germany.

Nigeria, Africa's No. 1 oil producer, is contributing 1 200 troops to the Mali intervention force, even though it is struggling to control a bloody Islamist insurgency at home by the sect Boko Haram. US and African military officials say Boko Haram has links with al Qaeda and its allies in Mali.

“If it is not contained, definitely it will spill into West Africa... It is one of the reasons we have to move fast,” Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who leads Sub-Saharan Africa's biggest economy, said the Mali situation would figure high on the agenda of an African Union summit this weekend.

“It is not just Mali. It is Chad, it is Niger, it is Mauritania,” Zuma told Reuters in an interview in Davos, adding that South Africa could play a role in Mali if asked to by the African Union as the continent's top representative body. - Reuters