BAMAKO, Mali — French troops pressed northward in Mali toward territory occupied by radical Islamists on Wednesday, military officials said, announcing the start of a land assault that will put soldiers in direct combat "within hours."
French ground operations began overnight in Mali, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the French military chief of staff, said on Europe 1 television. France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said soldiers were headed away from the relative safety of the capital toward the rebel strongholds in the north.
Residents of Niono, a city in the center of Mali which is just south of a town that was overrun by the jihadists earlier this week, said they saw trucks of French soldiers arrive overnight. The natural target for the French infantry is Diabaly, located 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of the capital and roughly 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of Niono. French warplanes have carried out airstrikes on Diabaly since the weekend, when a column of dozens of rebel vehicles cut off the road out of Diabaly and seized the town as well as its military camp.
Ibrahim Komnotogo, a resident of Diabaly who heads a USAID-financed rice agriculture project, happened to be outside the town when the jihadists encircled it. He has 20 employees and contractors who he says are stuck inside the town, population 35,000. He told The Associated Press that al-Qaida-linked rebels have sealed off the roads and are preventing people from leaving.
Komnotogo says he fears the Islamists are planning to hide within the mud-walled neighborhoods and use the population as a human shield.
"The jihadists have split up. They don't move around in big groups ... they are out in the streets, in fours, and fives and sixes, and they are living inside the most habituated neighborhoods," he said, explaining that they had taken over the homes of people who managed to flee before the road was cut off.
French warplanes bombarded the military camp, but there have been no airstrikes inside the actual town, which begins at the eastern wall of the garrison. Residents have evacuated the neighborhood called which is only 500 meters (yards) from the camp, he said. They have moved mostly into a quartier called Berlin, about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the military installation.
"They are preventing the population from leaving. We have been trying to get our employees out, but they can't leave," said Komnotogo. "They have parked their pickup trucks inside the courtyards of empty homes. They have beards. And they wear boubous (a flowing robe). No one approaches them. Everyone is afraid," he said.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the airstrikes last Friday after the Islamists began a push southward toward the capital from the northern half of Mali that they control. They seized the Afghanistan-sized north last April in the chaos following a coup in Mali's normally-stable capital.
Five days of airstrikes have done little to erode the Islamist gains in Mali, which some in the West fear could turn the region into a launching pad for terrorist attacks. The bombardments began in the town of Konna, which the rebels occupied last Thursday. After initially saying they had stopped the rebel advance, Le Drian on Tuesday acknowledged that Konna was still in the hands of the rebels.
The seizure of Diabaly brings the Islamists to only 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the capital. Konna, the closest point where they were known to be before, is 680 kilometers (425 miles)away.
The ground assault reverses France's earlier insistence that it would provide only air and logistical support for a military intervention, which would be led by African troops. "Now we're on the ground," Guillaud said. "We will be in direct combat within hours."
On Tuesday, France announced it tripling the number of troops deployed to Mali from 800 to 2,500. The offensive was to have been led by thousands of African troops pledged by Mali's neighbors, but they have yet to arrive, leaving France alone to lead the operation.
Guillaud said the militant groups have a history of taking human shields and France would do its utmost to make sure civilians are not wrongly targeted. "When in doubt, we will not fire," he said.
A resident of Niono said that some residents of the besieged town had managed to slip through the rebel noose. They were arriving on foot, said Mamadou Haidara,
Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako, Mali.