PARIS - French troops pressed northward in Mali toward territory occupied for months by Islamist militants 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, said Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the French military chief of staff. France's defence minister said soldiers were headed away from the relative safety of the capital toward the rebel strongholds in the north of the West African former French colony.
Five days of airstrikes have done little to erode the Islamist gains, which some in the West fear could turn the region into a launching pad for terrorist attacks.
The ground assault reversed France's earlier insistence that it would provide only air and logistical support for a military intervention led by African troops.
"Now we're on the ground," Guillaud said. "We will be in direct combat within hours."
On Tuesday, France announced it was increasing the number of troops from 800 to 2,500. The offensive was to have been led by thousands of African troops pledged by Mali's neighbours, but they have yet to arrive, making it increasingly apparent that France will be leading the attack rather than playing a supporting role.
A French military spokesman said Tuesday the Islamists had managed to seize more territory despite the air assault because the fighters were embedding themselves with the population, making it difficult to bomb without causing civilian casualties. He spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with military protocol.
Guillaud said the militant groups had a history of taking human shields and France would do its utmost to make sure civilians were not wrongly targeted.
"When in doubt, we will not fire," he said.
Supplies for the French forces arrived in a steady stream Tuesday, part of the enormous logistics operation needed to support thousands of troops in the baking Sahara sun, a terrain the Islamists have operated in for nearly a decade. Transport planes bringing military hardware landed in quick succession on the short airstrip: A giant Antonov, two C-17 Boeings and a C-160 disgorged equipment in preparation for a land offensive to try to seize back the northern territory held since April by a trio of rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaida.
Burly French troops in fatigues carried boxes of munitions as armoured personnel carriers lined up at the airport's gasoline pump. Roughly 40 armoured vehicles were driven in overnight by French soldiers stationed in Ivory Coast. They include the ERC-90, a six-wheeled vehicle mounted with a 90mm cannon. Dozens of French Marines camped out on the cement floor of an airport hangar.
Although at least 13 countries have offered support to the Mali mission, only France so far has soldiers there. On Tuesday, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated the Obama administration's position, saying no American troops will be sent. The U.S. is helping with communications and intelligence-gathering, and may allow American aircraft to help with transport.
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Mali is a vast, landlocked nation that straddles the Sahara Desert and whose borders touch Algeria to the north and Ivory Coast to the south, linking North Africa with sub-Saharan Africa. Mali also borders Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Mali's north is currently under the rule of radical Islamists, whereas the weak central government is in the country's south. The current fighting between French forces and the Islamists is taking place in the middle of the country in an effort to keep the militants from spreading further south toward the seat of power. <em>Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. Two main groups now appear to be competing to govern northern Mali: Ansar Dine, which wants to see Sharia law brought to Mali, and separatist rebels who already have declared an independent state. (AP Photo)</em>
Mali is home to some 15.8 million people, about 1.62 million of whom live in the capital of Bamako. Here, men and women sometimes ride three to a motorcycle in a city where bikes have their own lanes on the bridges connecting Bamako, divided by the Niger River. Mali's population reflects a rich diversity of cultures including the Bambara, the Malinke and the Peul. The country's north is also home to Arabs and the Tuaregs, who have led a number of rebellions against the central government over the years. <em>Malian refugees walk on December 7, 2012 in the Goudebou refugee camp, some 20 kms from the northwestern Bukinabe city of Dori. (AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mali is world-famous for its musicians, including the late Ali Farka Toure, as well as global exports Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, and Oumou Sangare. Before a spate of kidnappings carried out by al-Qaida's North Africa branch, the fabled city of Timbuktu was a popular tourist destination and the country hosted an annual music event called Festival in the Desert. Westerners also flocked to the stunning mud mosque of Djenne and the region known as Dogon Country, where guides bring people from village to village in a community long studied by anthropologists. <em>Malian musician Vieux Farka Toure, son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, performs on December 15, 2012 at the French Institute in Libreville. (ERIC BEAUDENON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mali is 90 percent Muslim, and the call to prayer regularly echoes across communities where prayer mats and beads are sold on the streets. The northern city of Timbuktu is a historically significant site of Islamic learning and today the city still has some 20,000-catalogued manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century. The Islam followed by Malians for centuries is a moderate form, though extremists began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah last year across the north when they took over the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. <em>A Malian refugee sits on December 7, 2012 in the Goudebou refugee camp, some 20 kms from the northwestern Bukinabe city of Dori. (OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
The Islamists have provoked international outcry by razing historic tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque in Timbuktu. They also have carried out public executions and amputations, as well as whippings for infractions ranging from possessing cigarettes to women going out without headscarves. Many women in southern Mali work outside the home and do not wear the veil, though polygamy is still common throughout the country. <em>Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. (AP Photo)</em>
Analysts worry that the al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali's north are using the vast, desolate region outside government control to prepare for attacks outside Mali's borders. Given the country's historical ties to France, the former colonizer, many Malians pass back and forth between the two countries. <em>Caption: Malian soldiers drive in the direction of Diabaly, on the road near Markala, approximately 40 km outside Segou in central Mali, Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore)</em>
Many Malians are subsistence farmers, raising millet, sorghum, rice and corn. However, the country's third-largest export after cotton and livestock is gold. <em>Caption: In this May 17, 2010 file photo, a boy in Sokolo, Mali rides a donkey cart. (AP Photo/ Martin Vogl, File)</em>
Mali slid into dictatorship after gaining independence from France in 1960, but then a 1991 coup led to elections the next year. Mali's then-president stepped down after the maximum two-term limit and Amadou Toumani Toure, known as ATT, was peacefully elected in 2002. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 11, 2012 file photo, Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure inspects an honor guard during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Pankaj Nangia, File)</em>
Toure was just months away from the end of his term when mutinous soldiers overthrew him in a coup in March 2012. The coup leader nominally handed over power to a weak, interim civilian government but is widely believed to still be controlling the country. The turmoil has left Mali's military in disarray, raising questions about how helpful Malian soldiers can be during the French-led intervention. <em>Caption: Wives of the Red Beret, a military unit which was in charge of protecting former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure, hold signs reading '' Peace in Mali'' as they march in the streets of Bamako on July 16, 2012 to demand their husbands' release and the ''truth'' to be told on ''disappearances''. (HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is estimated to have the second-highest infant mortality rate, with only Afghanistan higher. Life expectancy is a mere 53 years, and only 20 percent of women can read and write. Malian women on average have about six children each, and it is not uncommon for children to accompany their parents into the fields to work at a young age or to be involved in the country's mining industry. <em>Caption: In this Monday, April 30, 2012 photo, Mariam Orgho, 3, looks at her mother, Coumba Seck, sister-in-law of Samba Bayla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)</em>