(CNN) — Europe’s largest powers appear to coalescing for a common cause: getting rid of al Qaeda-linked militants in the West African nation of Mali.
Islamist rebels, considered well-armed and trained, are fighting to overthrow Mali’s government.
A quarter-million people have fled Mali — twice as many people as have fled the fighting in Syria. The international community fears the country will become the newest haven for terrorists in Africa.
French troops and warplanes have been helping Malian government forces stop Islamists from overrunning Mali’s capital, Bamako, an effort they’re calling Operation Serval. French President Francois Hollande told reporters in Paris on Wednesday that it was a “necessary decision” to go into the country, a former French colony.
“If we had not acted when we did, it probably would have fallen into the hands of terrorists,” he said. France is “doing it to help the Malian people.”
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday that French troops and warplanes joined the battle last week on the side of Malian government forces, and prevented the Islamists from capturing the city of Mopti.
Germany said Wednesday it will contribute two Transall transport planes to the offensive, the German Defense Ministry announced.
Italy also said it is “ready for a logistical support operation” in Mali, Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi told a senate hearing on international missions Wednesday.
Belgium’s defense minister said Tuesday that country will send two C-130 transport planes, two medical helicopters and 75 Belgian soldiers to Mali.
Canada is supplying logistical support to the mission and on Tuesday sent a military transport plane to France, where it was loaded with supplies and personnel to continue on to Mali.
The United States has promised to help the French effort, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States is reviewing requests from the French, but that no decisions have been made.
The operation, though, is being led by France, those countries say.
Hollande has said France had three aims: stopping the “terrorist aggression” from the north; securing Bamako and safeguarding French nationals there; and enabling Mali to recover its territorial integrity.
And he stressed that France was in Mali at the request of its government, with the support of its neighbors and world powers, and within the framework of international law.
“If we had not taken up our responsibility and if on Friday morning we had not acted with this intervention, where would Mali be today?” Hollande asked.
Mali was one of the most successful democracies in Africa until insurgents began trying to take it over.
Besides taking many lives, the insurgents have destroyed historic shrines in Timbuktu that date back to the 15th century. The attackers say the shrines offend Sharia law.
Allegations like those have spurred the International Criminal Court to launch a war crimes investigation, its chief prosecutor announced Wednesday. Fatou Bensouda said Mali’s government asked the U.N. tribunal to investigate in July, after the Islamists had taken control of much of the country.
“The international crimes committed in Mali have deeply shocked the conscience of humanity,” Bensouda said Wednesday. “The legal requirements have been met. We will investigate.”
The ICC has found “reasonable basis” to support allegations of murder, torture, mutilation, rape and pillaging, Bensouda said.
The international human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the announcement, calling it “a crucial step towards justice for the victims.” But the group said the ICC should look at human rights abuses committed by all sides in the conflict, including government troops and the ethnic Tuareg rebels whose 2012 revolt set the stage for the current conflict.
By the CNN Staff
CNN’s Jim Bittermann, Hada Messia and Frederik Pleitgen contributed to this report.