France launches ground campaign against Mali rebels
By Bate Felix and Alexandria Sage
BAMAKO/PARIS (Reuters) - French troops launched their first ground assault against Islamist rebels in Mali on Wednesday in a broadening of their operation against battle-hardened al Qaeda-linked fighters who have resisted six days of air strikes.
France has called for international support against the Islamist insurgents it says pose a threat to Africa and the West, acknowledging it faces a long fight against the well-equipped fighters who seized Mali's vast desert north last year.
After Islamist pledges to exact revenge for France's intervention, militants claimed responsibility for a raid on a gas field in Mali's neighbor Algeria.
Mauritanian media said an al Qaeda-linked group claimed to have seized as many as 41 hostages, including seven Americans, in the attack, carried out in retaliation for Algeria allowing France to use its air space. Three people, among them one British and one French citizen, were reported killed.
French army chief Edouard Guillaud said his ground forces were stepping up their operation to engage directly "within hours" with the alliance of Islamist fighters in Mali that groups al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM with the country's home-grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militant movements.
Residents said a column of about 30 French Sagaie armored vehicles advanced toward rebel positions from the town of Niono, 300 km (190 miles) from the capital Bamako. With the Malian army securing the northern border region near Mauritania, Islamist fighters were pinned down in the town of Diabaly.
"Fighting is taking place. So far it is just shooting from distance," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for the MUJWA militants. "They have not been able to enter Diabaly."
West African military chiefs said the French would soon be supported by around 2,000 troops from Nigeria, Chad, Niger and other regional powers - part a U.N.-mandated deployment which had been expected to start in September but was kick-started by the French intervention. Continued...