LORI HINNANT and RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
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 on RTL radio that 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, which has a population of 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 inhabited neighborhoods,” he said, explaining that they had taken over the homes of people who managed to flee before the road was cut off.