Bamako: French troops on Wednesday began the latest round of operations against radical Islamists by launching a ground assault in Mali.
The land assault puts French soldiers in direct combat with al Qaeda-linked fighters "in one to 72 hours," military officials said.
The troops were pressing north towards the town of Diabaly, where fleeing residents said Islamist extremists had taken over their homes and were preventing other people from leaving.
The residents claimed the militants had mixed with the local population and were moving in small groups to avoid being spotted by French troops.
In apparent retaliation for the French offensive, the same group controlling northern Mali occupied a natural gas complex in neighbouring Algeria, taking dozens of people hostage, including Americans. Two foreigners were killed.
French ground operations in Mali began overnight, France`s military chief of staff, Adm Edouard Guillaud, said on Europe 1 television on Wednesday. He stressed that French infantry units "will be fighting directly in the coming hours."
Armoured vehicles loaded with French troops were seen heading towards Niono, a town 340 kilometres (210 miles) northeast of the capital, Bamako. Some 70 kilometres (45 miles) northeast of Niono lies Diabaly, with a population of 35,000.
Over the weekend, dozens of rebel vehicles cut off the road to Diabaly, seizing the town and its strategic military camp. French warplanes have since carried out airstrikes on the camp.
Oumar Ould Hamaha, whose fighters are believed to be among those who seized Diabaly, said that a convoy of armoured French vehicles attempted to enter the town to take it back. He said the Islamists repelled the French after an intense and close combat.
"I confirm that France came in by land, but they failed. ... There was a combat that was (extremely close). Between 200 and 500 meters away," Hamaha said.
Col Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the French military in Paris, denied that French troops were in Diabaly or that they were 500 meters from rebel lines.
"The French Army did not deploy units in the region of Diabaly," Burkhard said. Troops were dozens of kilometres from Diabaly, he said, refusing to provide a location.
Hamaha is a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the rebel groups controlling Mali`s northern half. He is also a close associate of Moktar Belmokar, a leader of a local al Qaeda cell who claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of foreigners in Algeria.
A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa`s most stable democracies with majority of its 15 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed in April 2012, when Islamist extremists took over the main cities in the country`s north amid disarray following a military coup, and began enforcing strict Shariah law.
Security experts have warned that the extremists, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups which share al Qaeda`s goals, are carving out their own territory in northern Mali from where they can plot terror attacks in Africa and Europe. Estimates of how many fighters the Islamists have range from less than 1,000 to several thousand; the militants are well-armed and funded and include recruits from other countries.
Despite training from US and other Western advisers, the Mali army has been ineffective in fighting the militants.
France has upwards of 800 troops in Mali, and expects to ramp up to a total of 2,500 that will include French Foreign Legionnaires. It has committed helicopter gunships, fighter jets, surveillance planes and refuelling tankers.
(With Agency inputs)