French troops on the ground in Mali began fighting Islamist rebels—who are making way for the country’s south—for the first time on Wednesday.
They engaged in street battles with members of the armed rebel group Ansar Dine in the town of Diabaly, located around 220 miles north of Bamako, the capital, reported Al Jazeera, citing rebels and Mali military officials.
France has around 800 troops currently stationed in the country, but that number will increase to 2,500 in the near future.
French Prime Minister Francois Hollande called the intervention, which was approved by the United Nations Security Council, as “both necessary and legitimate.”
However, according to Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian the intervention, which is aimed at taking out the al-Qaeda aligned rebels who control over two thirds of Mali, will take a “long” time to carry out, according to France24.
“It’s a little more difficult in the west, where we find groups that are the toughest, most fanatical, better organized, more determined and well equipped. There the operation is on its way, but it’s going to be difficult,” Le Drian was quoted by France24 as saying.
Reuters reported that French armed forces encircled the rebels in Diably. “A final assault is only a matter of time,” an unnamed source said.
Le Drian said that there are around 1,300 Islamist rebels—many of whom came from other countries to fight—in Mali. They, along with Tuareg rebels, took over the northern portion of Mali last year following a security vacuum left by a military coup, but the Islamists ultimately turned against the Tuaregs.
According to French chief of staff, Edouard Guillaud, the recent airstrikes were not as effective because the militants were using civilians in the area to shield themselves.
Witnesses in Mali told The New York Times that rebels placed themselves within civilians in Diably, hiding in mud and brick houses to evade airstrikes.
“They are in the town, almost everywhere in the town,” Bekaye Diarra, a pharmacy owner in the town, told the Times. “They are installing themselves.”
While the raid was going on, an al-Qaeda-linked group kidnapped as many as 41 hostages, including seven Americans, during a raid on a gas field in Algeria, reported Reuters, which also said two people were killed. It suggests that there might be future reprisal attacks against foreign interests in the region because of the France-led intervention.
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