France starts ground ops against Mali Islamists

French troops launched their first ground operation against Islamist rebels in Mali on Wednesday in a crucial action to dislodge al-Qaeda-linked fighters who have resisted six days of air strikes.

France called for international support against Islamist insurgents it says are a threat to Africa and the west and acknowledged it faced a long fight against well-equipped and determined militant fighters who seized Mali’s vast desert north last year.

After Islamist threats to exact revenge for France's dramatic intervention, an al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a raid on a gas field in Algeria in which seven foreigners were kidnapped and a French national killed.

With the Malian army securing the northern region near the Mauritanian border, Islamist fighters were encircled in the nearby town of Diabaly.

French army chief Edouard Guillaud said his ground forces were starting their campaign against the alliance of Islamist fighters, grouping al-Qaida’s north African wing AQIM with Mali’s home grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militant movements.

“In the coming hours — but I cannot tell you if it’s in one hour or 72 hours — yes, of course we will be fighting them directly,” he told Europe 1 radio. during an interview.

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