By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI and BABA AHMEDAssociated Press
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) - French forces led an all-night bombing campaign over a minuscule Malian town, not even big enough to appear on most administrative maps, in an effort to dislodge the Islamist extremists who seized the area, including its strategic military camp.
Meanwhile, a convoy of 40 to 50 armed trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast, where they were stationed, as France prepares for a possible land assault.
French President Francois Hollande launched an attack on Mali's rebels, who are linked to al-Qaida, last week after the rebels began advancing south. France's action pre-empted 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.
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, which puts 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) away 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."
During a stop in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Hollande told RFI radio that he was sure the French 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. "Air strikes 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.
"The French resemble a fly that was attracted to a pot of honey. Now their feet are sticky. They can't fly away anymore. France has opened the doors of hell. ... They are bombing us from an altitude of 13,000 meters (yards). It's to our advantage that they send in French troops on foot. 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."
Two residents of the town of Sikasso, located on the Mali border with Ivory Coast, said the population came out to cheer the French military convoy, traveling from a base in Ivory Coast. It was unclear if they were headed to Diabaly, or elsewhere.
Britain's Ministry of Defense confirmed Tuesday that their RAF C17 aircraft carrying French military personnel and supplies had arrived in the capital, Bamako.
There are already at least 550 French troops in Mali, with more arriving every day. A total of 13 nations have agreed to either send troops, or else supplies and logistical help to aid the effort in Mali.
The al-Qaida-linked groups control an area that is the size of France itself in northern Mali, a territory larger than even Afghanistan. They seized it in conjunction with other rebel groups nine months ago, and have imposed a brutal version of Islam. Girls as young as 12 have been flogged for not covering up, as have pregnant and elderly women. The rich musical tradition of this part of the world has gone silent in the north, where even cellphone ringtones are banned.
Among the first targets of the French bombing raid was a building in the city of Gao that served as the headquarters of the Islamic police, which handed down punishments that included the amputation of the hands and feet of accused thieves.
Associated Press writer Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report from London.
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