Commanders of French and Malian forces, who have set up their operations center in the nearby town of Niono, some 190 miles northeast of the capital, Bamako, said the whereabouts of the Islamist fighters remained unclear.
“Our principal concern is that a section of the population may have joined the jihadists,” said Colonel Seydou Sogoba, head of Malian military operations in the area.
“The war against the Islamists is not an easy one. They come in and mix with the local population,” he said.
Some Islamist fighters had shaved their beards and swapped their robes for jeans to blend in with local residents, he said.
France has deployed 2,000 ground troops, and its war planes have pounded rebel columns and bases for 10 days, effectively halting an Islamist advance on the riverside capital.
The French intervention was aimed at stopping the loose coalition of Muslim militants from using Mali’s north as a training ground and springboard for attacks in Africa and on the West.
The Islamist alliance, which joins al-Qaeda’s North African wing and home-grown Malian militant groups Ansar al-Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, has imposed harsh sharia law in northern Mali, including amputations and the destruction of ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius brushed off suggestions that France risked becoming embroiled in a guerrilla war. Islamist fighters have pledged to turn Mali into a new Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan, there was no democratic regime. Here, there’s a democratic regime, even if it needs to be perfected,” Fabius told a news conference. “The common point is it’s a battle against terrorism.”
The stakes in Mali rose dramatically this week when Islamist gunmen cited France’s intervention as the reason they attacked a desert gas plant in neighboring Algeria, taking hundreds of hostages. Algeria carried out an assault Saturday to end the siege and said Sunday that it expected a heavy death toll.
Veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility in the name of al-Qaeda for the Algeria attack, the Mauritanian news Web site Sahara Media said Sunday.
“We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims,” Belmokhtar said in a video, according to Sahara Media.
The conflict in Mali and the hostage crisis in Algeria have raised concerns about the radicalization of the broader Sahel region, which is awash with weapons pillaged from the armories of toppled Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
At a meeting in Ivory Coast on Saturday with heads of state of the Economic Community of West African States, Fabius appealed for international help to fund a U.N.-mandated African mission to oust the Islamists from the region. A donors conference will be held in Ethiopia on Jan. 29.