By BABA AHMED and RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, Associated Press
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — France is tripling the number of troops deployed to Mali to 2,500, part of the massive preparation for a land assault to dislodge the Islamist extremists occupying the West African country's north.
The increased total of French troops was confirmed in Paris Tuesday by a French Ministry of Defense official, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak.
Despite a punishing, five-day campaign of aerial bombardments, the al-Qaida-linked rebels have continued to advance south, seizing a strategic military camp in central Mali, and embedding themselves in villages of thatched roofs, making it impossible to bomb without killing civilians.
The number of French soldiers in Mali is rapidly increasing from the Tuesday morning count of 800, including elite special forces. Every few hours, enormous transport planes are landing at Bamako's airport, loaded with supplies and more soldiers.
Overnight, a regiment of 150 French soldiers drove overland from neighboring Ivory Coast, bringing in a convoy of 40 armored vehicles, including the ERC-90, a tank-like car, mounted with a 90 mm cannon.
Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving soon, and Nigeria said nearly 200 would be coming in the next 24 hours.
French President Francois Hollande launched an attack on Mali's rebels, who are linked to al-Qaida, last week after the insurgents began advancing south. France's action preempted a United Nations-approved plan for a military operation in Mali, which was expected to start about nine months from now. Hollande decided a military response could not wait that long in its former colony.
The number of French troops in Mali will be reduced as more African troops arrive, said Hollande Tuesday, speaking at a news conference in the United Arab Emirates.
French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected. Despite France's five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly on Monday, putting them roughly 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Mali's capital, Bamako. When the air raids began last week, the closest known point they occupied was 680 kilometers (420 miles) from the capital.
"They bombed Diabaly. They bombed the town all night long. I am hiding inside a house," said Ibrahim Toure, who irons clothes for a living and happened to be passing through Diabaly on his way to visit relatives, getting caught when the Islamists encircled the town. "It only stopped this morning at around 6 a.m."
France ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French citizens living in the area of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali located a three-hour drive from Diabaly, according to an email sent by the French Embassy in Bamako.
During a stop in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Hollande told RFI radio that he was sure the French military operation would succeed.
"We are confident about the speed with which we will be able to stop the aggressors, the enemy, these terrorists. And with (the help) of the Africans that are being deployed, I think that in one more week we can restore Mali's territorial integrity," he said. "Airstrikes were conducted overnight so that the terrorists who are seeking refuge in Diabaly — they have not conquered the town and are hiding inside it to protect themselves — will be chased out."
The Islamists taunted the French, saying that they have vastly exaggerated their gains.
"I would advise France not to sing their victory song too quickly. They managed to leave Afghanistan. They will never leave Mali," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a commander of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the extremist groups controlling northern Mali, whose fighters are believed to be in Diabaly.
"It's to our advantage that they send in French troops on foot," Hamaha said. "We are waiting for them. And what they should know is that every French soldier that comes into our territory should make sure to prepare his will beforehand, because he will not leave alive."