BAMAKO, Mali — French and Malian troops battled militants in the desert village of Diabaly in central Mali on Wednesday, and were preparing for more ground operations Thursday morning, said senior Malian military officials. The confrontations marked the first direct engagement since France launched a military assault last week to oust radical Islamists who have advanced to within 250 miles of the capital.
“The jihadists are mixing with the people, moving around in small groups of five,” said Salif Ouedraogo, an aid worker. “They are preventing people from leaving Diabaly. They want to use the people as human shields.”
What began as a campaign of aerial assaults now appears to be expanding into a ground war, raising questions about France’s military capability and political will to defeat the Islamists, a melding of al-Qaeda militants, religious zealots and criminals who seized a Texas-size territory in northern Mali in March. Although French forces have had experience combating guerrillas recently in Afghanistan, they have not played the lead role in a counterinsurgency campaign since France’s colonial days.
“The French military today, although capable, is certainly not the French military that once conquered much of Africa,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington.
Earlier on Wednesday, it was unclear whether the ground operations had begun.
An all-out attack on the town by French ground forces would sharply raise the risks of casualties and criticism of the operation from within France, where leaders across the political spectrum have expressed support so far. Fighting would probably have to proceed at close quarters, house to house, robbing the French forces of the overwhelming technological advantage they have had while their role was limited to airstrikes and attempts to bolster the disorganized Malian army.
It would be a dramatic change from the 2011 Libya intervention, in which no French casualties were reported despite months of bombing and the presence on the ground of an unknown number of special forces.
In the wake of a March military coup, the Islamists piggybacked on a rebellion by secular Tuareg separatists that drove out the government from northern Mali and divided the country into two. Weapons from the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s arsenals that were smuggled into northern Mali helped drive the rebellion.
But the Islamists quickly pushed out the separatists and imposed a harsh brand of sharia law, marked by amputations, stonings and whippings. By the summer, three groups controlled the north: Ansar Dine, or “defender of the faith”; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist network’s West and North Africa wing; and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
Last week, the Islamists advanced southward and seized the town of Konna, prompting the French military intervention.
In what could be a taste of things to come, former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing warned President Francois Hollande on Wednesday against letting the French intervention evolve into a “neocolonialist” type of action. “France should limit itself strictly to its logistical support to African forces,” he told the newspaper Le Monde.
But military analysts say a high-tech campaign centered on airstrikes, surveillance drones and satellite intelligence is unlikely to dislodge the Islamists.
Strikes on northern towns such as Gao have only driven the militants underground. The ineffective Malian military has been unable to retake Konna from the militants, despite an intense campaign of aerial assaults, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a news conference Tuesday.
The takeover of Diabaly came despite several days of bombing by French Mirage 2000D and Rafale warplanes, as well as repeated vows by Malian army officers to storm their opponents.
“This is not a war that can be fought from the air. This is a war that has to be fought on the ground,” Pham said. “It will get messy.”
On Wednesday, it was unclear whether the ground operations had begun. Le Drian told RTL radio: “Today the ground forces are in the process of deploying. Now the French forces are reaching the north.” But France’s chief of staff, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, told Europe 1 television that ground operations were launched overnight.
Le Drian said the Islamist guerrillas were part of the main faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, commanded by a veteran Algerian underground fighter, Abdulhamid Abu Zeid. They constituted the western column of a two-pronged southward offensive launched a week ago in what French officials said was an attempt to take Bamako, the capital, and turn Mali into a terrorist-ruled country.
Around Diabaly, Le Drian said, “we have the hardest groups, the most fanatic, the best organized, the most determined and the best armed.”
He added, “We have on our hands in this zone several hundred, more than a thousand, 1,200, 1,300 terrorists, with perhaps reinforcements tomorrow.”
The French deployment is set to number 2,500 troops when it reaches full force, around the same as deployed in Afghanistan at its peak.
In Mali, though, French forces face several key challenges. They lack resources and have to depend on Western allies, such as the United States and Britain, for logistical support. They will also depend largely on Washington for aerial intelligence, such as drone surveillance, satellite imagery and cellphone monitoring.
France seeks to eventually transfer leadership of the operation to 3,000 African troops promised by Mali’s neighbors and approved by the U.N. Security Council. The European Union has pledged to train the troops. But even if Mali’s neighbors speed up their deployments, it could take weeks or months to adequately train the troops. They, too, have little experience fighting in the desert.
The Islamists have rocket-
propelled grenades, machine guns mounted on pickup trucks and armored personnel carriers seized from Mali’s military, among other weapons. They have also been recruiting child fighters, which could complicate France’s ground war.
“How is this going to play out in Paris or Lyon when French soldiers are shooting children?” Pham said.