* French ground troops to engage rebels forces in coming
* French, Malian forces encircle central town of Diabaly
* Planes hit target near Timbuktu in sixth day of raids
By Bate Felix and Alexandria Sage
BAMAKO/PARIS, Jan 16 French troops launched
their first ground operation against Islamist rebels in Mali on
Wednesday in a crucial action to dislodge al Qaeda-linked
fighters who have resisted six days of air strikes.
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
After Islamist threats to exact revenge for France's
dramatic intervention, an al Qaeda-linked group claimed
responsibility for a raid on a gas field in Algeria in which
seven foreigners were kidnapped and a French national killed.
A column of French armoured vehicles moved into position on
Tuesday at the town of Niono, 300 km (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 Qaeda's North African wing AQIM with
Mali's home grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militant movements.
"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 armoured vehicles heading toward Islamist rebel lines.
Fighting was reported in Diabaly but it was not immediately
clear if French ground forces were involved.
Guillaud said French military strikes were being hampered
because militants were using the civilian population as a
"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.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledged that France
faced a difficult operation, particularly in Western Mali where
AQIM's mostly foreign fighters have camps. Mauritania has
pledged to close its porous frontier to the Islamists.
"It's tough. We were aware from the beginning it would be a
very difficult operation," Le Drian said.
WAITING FOR AFRICAN TROOPS
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
Military chiefs from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS
met for a second day in Bamako on Wednesday in a bid to hammer
out the details of their U.N.-mandated deployment.
With African troops facing huge logistical and transport
challenges to quickly deploy their troops, Germany promised two
Transall military transport planes to fly soldiers from around
the region to Bamako.
Hollande's bold intervention in Mali, which has helped to
end his reputation for dithering, brings risks for eight French
hostages held by AQIM in the Sahara as well as the 30,000 French
citizens living across West Africa.
AQIM and Ansar Dine have vowed to take revenge for France's
intervention on its interests around the globe.
In Algeria, where AQIM has its roots, militants seized five
Japanese nationals, a French citizen and an Irishman from an oil
facility in Ain Amenas in southern Algeria on Wednesday, local
and diplomatic sources told Reuters. A French national was
killed in the raid.
The field, located close to the border with Libya, is
operated by a joint venture including BP, Norwegian oil
firm Statoil and Algerian state company Sonatrach.
The conflict in Mali raised concerns across mostly Muslim
West Africa of a radicalisation of Islam in the region. In
Senegal, a traditionally moderate Islamic country, President
Macky Sall warned citizens to be vigilant for attacks.
"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 neighbouring 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."