French troops begin ground assault in Mali

By ADAM NOSSITER, ALAN COWELL & ERIC SCHMITT

French soldiers battled armed Islamist occupiers of a desert village in central Mali on Wednesday, a Malian army colonel said, in the first direct ground combat involving Western troops since France launched its military operation here last week to help wrest this nation back from an Islamist advance.

The Malian colonel said his army's ground troops had joined the French forces and ringed the village of Diabaly, which Islamist fighters had seized the day before. Now, he said, they were engaged in fighting to extricate the militants, who had taken over homes and ensconced themselves. "It's a very specialised kind of war," said the colonel. "The town is surrounded."

The ground fighting expanded the confrontation between the Islamists and the French forces, who had previously conducted aerial assaults after President François Hollande of France ordered an intervention in Mali last Friday to thwart a broader push by Islamist rebels controlling the north of the country.

The developments underscored an earlier acknowledgment from the French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, that the military campaign to turn back the Islamists and drive them from their redoubts in northern Malian desert would be a protracted one.

"The combat continues and it will be long, I imagine," he said Wednesday on RTL radio. "Today the ground forces are in the process of deploying," he said. "Now the French forces are reaching the north."

Adm Edouard Guillaud, the French chief of staff, told Europe 1 television that ground operations began overnight. He accused jihadists of using civilians as human shields and said, "We refuse to put the population at risk. If there is doubt, we will not fire."

In Paris, Mr. Hollande said Wednesday that he took the decision to intervene last Friday because it was necessary. If he had not done so, it would have been too late. "Mali would have been entirely conquered and the terrorists would today be in a position of strength."

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