Mali team spirit is high for the Africa Cup of Nations here even though the country has been embroiled in a conflict with Islamist militant groups in the vast desert northern region.

Since January 2012, insurgents have been fighting Malian troops for greater independence for northern Mali. This month, troops from other African states backed by French air and ground forces moved in.

France-born Mali coach Patrice Carteron said the involvement of foreign troops has made his players feel a lot safer and they are now confident the conflict will end soon.

"It has not been easy as this war has been going on for a year now, but the involvement of foreign troops led by France has lifted the spirit of the players as well as the entire country," said the former Lyon defender.

"They are now a lot more confident that the country will be peaceful again soon and life can return to normal."

Football has been a big uniting force for Malians amid insecurity in the country, Carteron added.

"We began training for the Nations Cup in Mali and it was incredible to see as many as 20 000 fans at our sessions. We have given the people hope and we hope we can carry on doing so here in South Africa," said the coach who replaced compatriot Alain Giresse last year.

Goalkeeper trainer Mahamadou Sidibe told AFP at the team hotel in this Indian Ocean city that despite the trouble in the country, they are focused on doing well while maintaining daily contact with home.

"It's tense back in Mali, but we believe everything will be brought back to normal very soon," said Sidibe, who featured for Mali at several Africa Cup tournaments.

"I live in Bamako, but my family is living in Paris because the situation is still not under control.

"We keep in daily contact with people in Mali to really know what is going on. This will not affect what we do here in South Africa."

Mali team manager Amadou Cisse says the players are concentrating on the Nations Cup.

"Team spirit is high and all they are thinking of is the Nations Cup, beginning with our first game on Sunday against Niger," assured Cisse.