ABIDJAN - African leaders meeting in Ivory Coast on Saturday are expected to sign off on a regional mission that is due to take over from French forces fighting al Qaida-linked militants in Mali, but is still short on financing and planning.

France has carried out air strikes and scrambled ground troops to halt an Islamist advance, acting to prevent militants from tightening their grip on Mali's northern desert zone and using it as a springboard for attacks in Africa and on the West.

The stakes rose dramatically this week when Islamist gunmen cited the French intervention as a pretext to attack a desert gas plant in neighboring Algeria and seize hostages. An unknown number have been killed and more than 20 foreigners were still captive or missing on Saturday.

The crisis has forced African nations to accelerate their own planned mission to Mali, which was originally not expected before September. A Western diplomat following the process said there were many uncertainties, even though heads of state were expected to formally confirm pledges to dispatch some 5,000 African soldiers to join French forces in Mali.

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