Al Qaeda-linked rebels launched a counter-offensive on Monday in central Mali after four days of air strikes by French warplanes on their strongholds in the desert north, promising to drag France into a long and brutal Afghanistan-style ground war.
France intensified its air raids on Sunday using Rafale aircraft and Gazelle attack helicopters to pummel training camps at the heart of the vast area seized by rebels in April, while pouring hundreds of troops into the capital Bamako.
French planes were in action again on Monday. Paris is determined to end rebel domination of northern Mali, which many fear could act as a launchpad for attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
Launching a counter-attack far to the southwest of recent fighting, rebels clashed with government forces on Monday inside the town of Diabaly, just 350 kilometers (220 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.
Residents said the rebels had entered the town from the north overnight, approaching from the porous border region with Mauritania where al-Qaeda's North African wing AQIM has camps.
“They have taken Diabaly ... after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television, adding that French and Malian forces were fighting to dislodge the rebels.
A spokesman for the MUJWA group, one of the main factions in the rebel alliance, promised French citizens would pay for Sunday's air strikes in their stronghold of Gao. Dozens of rebel fighters were killed when rockets struck a fuel depot and a customs house being used as their headquarters.
“They should attack on the ground if they are men. We'll welcome them with open arms,” Oumar Ould Hamaha told Europe 1 radio. “France has opened the gates of hell for all the French. She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.”
France has said its sudden intervention on Friday, after Mali's president appealed for urgent aid in the face of a rebel advance, stopped the rebels from seizing the capital Bamako. It has pledged to press on with air strikes in the coming days.
President Francois Hollande says France's aim is simply to support a mission by the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS to retake the north, as mandated by a U.N. Security Council resolution in December.
Under pressure from Paris, several regional states have said they hope to have soldiers on the ground this week. Military chiefs from ECOWAS nations will meet in Bamako on Tuesday but regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that training and deploying troops will take time.
Officials in Washington has said the United States would share intelligence with France and was considering sending a small number of unarmed surveillance drones. Britain and Canada have also promised logistical support.