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France launches 'tough' ground offensive against Mali's Islamist rebels

Eric Feferberg / AFP - Getty Images

Malian people watch as a French armored vehicle leaves Bamako to begin deploying to the north of Mali as part of the "Serval" operations on Wednesday.In a joint offensive launched with Malian soldiers on Jan. 11, France is using air and ground power to defeat a militant Islamist group controlling the north of the country.

BAMAKO, Mali — French troops launched their first ground operation against Islamist rebels in Mali on Wednesday in a crucial action to dislodge al-Qaida-linked fighters who have resisted six days of airstrikes.

France called for international support against Islamist insurgents it says are a threat to Africa and the West and acknowledged it faced a long fight against well-equipped and determined militant fighters who seized Mali's vast desert north last year.

After Islamist threats to exact revenge for France's dramatic intervention, an al-Qaida-linked group claimed responsibility for a raid on a gas field in Algeria in a number of foreign workers were believed to have been kidnapped.

A column of French armored vehicles moved into position on Tuesday at the town of Niono, 190 miles from the capital Bamako. With the Malian army securing the northern region near the Mauritanian border, Islamist fighters were encircled in the nearby town of Diabaly.

French army chief Edouard Guillaud said his ground forces were starting their campaign against the alliance of Islamist fighters, grouping al-Qaida's North African wing AQIM with Mali's home grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militant movements.

After tripling its number of troops to help stop Islamist fighters advancing on Mali's capital, the French president has pledged to stay in Mali until stability has returned. Meanwhile, A UK transport has arrived and thousands of African troops are on the way. ITV's Rohit Kachroo reports from Mali's capital

"In the coming hours — but I cannot tell you if it's in one hour or 72 hours — yes, of course we will be fighting them directly," he told Europe 1 radio.

In Niono, a resident reported seeing French and Malian troops in armored vehicles heading toward Islamist rebel lines. Fighting was reported in Diabaly but it was not immediately clear if French ground forces were involved.

Human shields
Guillaud said French military strikes were being hampered because militants were using the civilian population as a shield.

"We categorically refuse to make the civilian population take a risk. If in doubt, we will not shoot," he said. Residents who fled Diabaly confirmed the Islamists had used the towns inhabitants to protect themselves in recent days.

French fighter jets, meanwhile, struck the headquarters of the Islamic police in Niafunke, a small town on the Niger river near the ancient caravan route of Timbuktu, residents said.

Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledged that France faced a difficult operation, particularly in Western Mali where AQIM's mostly foreign fighters have camps.

"It's tough. We were aware from the beginning it would be a very difficult operation," Le Drian said.

French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday French forces would remain in Mali until stability returned to the West African nation. Hollande said France hoped, however, to hand over to African forces in its former colony, "in the coming days or weeks."

The conflict in Mali raised concerns across mostly Muslim West Africa of a radicalization of Islam in the region. In Senegal, a traditionally moderate Islamic country, President Macky Sall warned citizens to be vigilant for attacks.

Al-Qaida-linked Islamist rebels in Mali have promised to drag France into an Afghanistan-style war. They've launched a counteroffensive after four days of French airstrikes on their northern strongholds. There are reports the Islamists have seized control of Diabaly a town 250 miles north of the capital Bamako. Jonathan Miller Channel Four Europe reports.

"We must be on the watch in our towns and villages because infiltrations are taking place," he said in a speech on Tuesday. "You will hear foreign preachers talking in the name of Islam. You must denounce them to authorities."

The fighting in Mali, a landlocked state at the heart of West Africa, has displaced an estimated 30,000 people. Hundreds have fled across the border into neighboring Mauritania and Niger in recent days.

"We were all afraid. Many young fighters have enrolled with them recently," said Mahamadou Abdoulaye, 35, a truck driver who fled from the northern Gao region of Mali into Niger. "They are newly arrived, they cannot manage their weapons properly. There's fear on everybody's face."

Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra in Bamako, Lamine Chikhi in Algiers, Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by David Lewis and Giles Elgood

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