SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) -- After fierce bombardment by the French military, Islamist insurgents in Mali have hunkered down to fight again, facing a column of French ground forces moving north from here on Wednesday in a phalanx of armored vehicles and preparing for battle “within hours.”
Some unconfirmed reports in the French news media said close-quarters combat was under way in a village that had been overrun by the Islamists, but Defense Ministry officials declined to comment. Other reports spoke of fighting by French special forces and Malian government troops confronting insurgents who were reported to have regrouped after French airstrikes on Monday.
If corroborated, the reported clashes would be the first direct combat involving French ground forces since President François Hollande ordered warplanes into action in Mali last Friday to thwart a push to the south by Islamist rebels controlling the north of the country.
News reports on Wednesday said Islamists from northern Mali had moved into southern Algeria to seize hostages at a gas field, kidnapping several people including Japanese nationals and other foreigners in a possible response to the French intervention.
BP, which operates the field in partnership with a Norwegian company, and the British Foreign Office both confirmed that an incident was unfolding at the field, but declined to give details.
The developments came soon after Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France forecast a protracted campaign to turn back a southward thrust by the rebels from their redoubts in the northern desert.
“We’re in a better position than last week, but the combat continues and it will be long, I imagine,” he said Wednesday on RTL radio. “Today the ground forces are in the process of deploying,” he said. “Now the French forces are reaching the north.”
Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the French chief of staff, told Europe 1 television that ground operations began overnight. “Now we’re on the ground,” Admiral Guillaud said. “We will be in direct combat within hours.”
Soon after he spoke, French news outlets reported contact between French and Islamist forces in the village of Diabaly, north of Ségou on the approaches to Bamako, the capital.
“I cannot say whether it will be one hour or 72 hours,” Admiral Guillaud said. He said French troops were familiar with “conflict of a guerrilla nature to which we are accustomed in this kind of region.”
He accused jihadists of using civilians as human shields and said, “We refuse to put the population at risk. If there is doubt, we will not fire.”
In Paris, Mr. Hollande said Wednesday that he took the decision to intervene last Friday because it was necessary. If he had not done so, it would have been too late. “Mali would have been entirely conquered and the terrorists would today be in a position of strength."
On Tuesday, witnesses in Mali reported, the insurgents had regrouped after French airstrikes and embedded themselves among the population of Diabaly, hiding in the mud and brick houses in the battle zone and thwarting attacks by French warplanes to dislodge them.
“They are in the town, almost everywhere in the town,” said Bekaye Diarra, who owns a pharmacy in Diabaly, which remained under the control of insurgents. “They are installing themselves.”
Benco Ba, a parliamentary deputy there, said residents were fearful of the conflict that had descended on them. “The jihadists are going right into people’s families,” he said. “They have completely occupied the town. They are dispersed. It’s fear, ” he said, as it became clear that airstrikes alone will probably not be enough to root out these battle-hardened insurgents, who know well the harsh grassland and desert terrain of Mali.
Containing the rebels’ southern advance toward Bamako is proving more challenging than anticipated, French military officials have acknowledged. And with the Malian Army in disarray and no outside African force yet assembled, displacing the rebels from the country altogether appears to be an elusive, long-term challenge.