Bamako: French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign today to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists, as more French troops arrived in preparation for a possible land assault.
A convoy of 40 to 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving soon, and Nigeria said nearly 200 would be coming in the next 24 hours.
French President Francois Hollande launched an attack on Mali`s rebels, who are linked to al-Qaeda, last week after the insurgents began advancing south. France`s action preempted a United Nations-approved plan for a military operation in Mali, which was expected to start about nine months from now. Hollande decided a military response could not wait that long in its former colony.
French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected. Despite France`s five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly yesterday, putting them roughly 400 kilometres from Mali`s capital, Bamako.
When the air raids began last week, the closest known point they occupied was 680 kilometres from the capital.
During a stop in Abu Dhabi today, Hollande told RFI radio that he was sure the French military operation would succeed.
"We are confident about the speed with which we will be able to stop the aggressors, the enemy, these terrorists. And with (the help) of the Africans that are being deployed, I think that in one more week we can restore Mali`s territorial integrity," he said.
"Airstrikes were conducted overnight so that the terrorists who are seeking refuge in Diabaly, they have not conquered the town and are hiding inside it to protect themselves, will be chased out."
The Islamists taunted the French, saying that they have vastly exaggerated their gains.
"I would advise France not to sing their victory song too quickly. They managed to leave Afghanistan. They will never leave Mali," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a commander of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the extremist groups controlling northern Mali, whose fighters are believed to be in Diabaly.
Diabaly represents an especially symbolic victory for the Islamists. It was in the military camp inside the town that 16 Muslim preachers from the fundamentalist Islamic sect, the Dawa which originated in India, were massacred by Malian government forces four months ago.
The group of bearded men were unarmed, and were heading to a religious conference in the capital.