BAMAKO — French ground forces prepared to engage in Mali for the first time Tuesday to drive Islamists out of the town of Diabaly, which they seized a day earlier, while a first lot of regional troops headed to join the offensive.
As witnesses reported hundreds of Malian and French troops in armoured vehicles headed to Diabaly, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital, another convoy was seen leaving Bamako in a northern direction.
"Several hundred Malian and French soldiers left Niono (south of Diabaly) to take" back the town, said a local government official in Niono, while a security source announced plans to "take back Diabaly with the French."
Overnight, French fighter jets launched strikes on Diabaly, but a regional security source said the insurgents were still in the zone, some of whom had taken hostage a local government official and his family.
The engagement of ground forces on the fifth day of an offensive that had been waged up to now with fighter jets came as French defence sources said the country would triple its force in Mali to a total of 2,500 troops.
Speaking in Dubai, French President Francois Hollande said that his government does not intend to keep forces in Mali, but will remain until security is restored and "terrorists" eliminated.
West African army chiefs meanwhile met Tuesday in Bamako to plan the roll-out of a UN-mandated, 3,300-strong regional intervention force in the former French colony.
"We are here today to speak about the engagement alongside our Malian brothers in arms, to liberate the north of Mali," Ivory Coast army chief General Soumaila Bakayoko said at the talks.
The meeting is set to continue Wednesday in order to finalise a declaration, a participant told AFP.
Nigeria, which is leading the regional force, said the first of its troops would deploy to Mali within 24 hours.
Nigerian defence spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerima said the country's total commitment will be 900 troops, 300 more than earlier announced. Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged troops.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the Islamists were putting up tough resistance. "We are up against a determined adversary that is well-equipped and has not given up, but we have hit them hard with our strikes, including those deep in their territory," Le Drian said.
He admitted the Malian forces around Diabaly were struggling. "Malian forces have been sorely tried in recent combat. Our presence has strengthened them," he said. He added the jihadists remained in control of the central Malian town of Konna, whose capture prompted the French to intervene and drive the rebels back after they threatened to advance on the capital.
The Malians had earlier reported having "total control" of the town. Mali's army was on Tuesday reported to be 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Konna. "The Islamists have not left Konna, they are on the outskirts," said a local resident who had fled the town for Mopti, 70 kilometres away. Islamists had left the town centre to hide but were coming back "to get food supplies", he said.
-- 'Jihadists in it for the long-haul' --
Since France launched its offensive, the Islamists have fled key strongholds under their control since April, when they took over the vast desert north, implementing their brutal version of Islamic law.
Analysts said the Islamist retreat was likely a tactical move. "The jihadists are in it for the long-haul. They are comfortable in this situation: the vast desert, a difficult terrain, a precarious security situation," said Tunisian Islamist expert Alaya Allani.
Hollande, speaking earlier from a French military base in Abu Dhabi, said the French intervention had prevented Mali from being overrun by "terrorists". According to France's UN ambassador, the 15-nation UN Security Council on Monday expressed its unanimous support for the French offensive. Washington also welcomed the action.
So far the unrest has sent 144,500 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, while another 230,000 are internally displaced, the UN humanitarian agency said Tuesday.
Crisis meetings between French diplomats and aid organisations are planned in Paris and Bamako this week, as charities warn the population could feel the effects of a backlash from Islamists.
The fighting has also killed at least 11 Malian soldiers and one French helicopter pilot.
The hold by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists on vast swathes of northern Mali has fuelled fears the zone -- a hostile, semi-arid region more than double the size of France -- could become an Afghan-style breeding ground for terrorists.
Belgium offered two C-130 transport planes and two helicopters to back up France's offensive, while Britain and Canada have offered troop transporters.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany was considering logistical or humanitarian support, warning Mali should not be allowed to become a failed state.
And European Union diplomats said EU foreign ministers would meet Thursday to speed up the dispatch of a mission to train Mali's army and discuss how best to back up the African force.
Hollande met Tuesday with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who raised the possibility of participating in "Operation Serval" -- named after a small African cat -- according to the French president's entourage.
Hollande also intimated that Chad and the United Arab Emirates could take part. However, Qatar and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, of which Mali is a member, have urged dialogue instead of military intervention.
At home, France has deployed 700 troops in and around Paris, indicating mounting concern over potential reprisal attacks.
Mali's militant Islamists have warned France has "opened the doors of hell" by unleashing its warplanes and called on fellow extremists to hit back on French soil.
Afghanistan's Taliban have joined in condemning France's intervention, warning of "disastrous" consequences.
Hollande's bold moves have nevertheless earned him respect at home, where 75 percent of French people support the offensive, according to a poll for newspaper Le Parisien.