Malian crisis: French troops engage in direct combat

A French air force pilot stands near Mirage jets of the French army at the 101 airbase near Bamako during a visit of Malian president to the French troops on January 16, 2013. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

A French air force pilot stands near Mirage jets of the French army at the 101 airbase near Bamako during a visit of Malian president to the French troops on January 16, 2013. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

Following almost a week of intense airstrikes, French troops have engaged in directs combat with Islamist rebels in central Mali only 400 kilometers from the capital Bamako.

­The first clashes erupted between Islamist rebels and Malian and French ground troops after they surrounded the rebel-controlled city of Diabaly north of the capital, Xinhua reported.

About 200 French soldiers took part in the operation, a Malian security source told Xinhua. According to witnesses, women and children had fled the town before the operation started.

Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera reported that the fighting was happening about two kilometers away from the center of the city, “away from the civilians.”

Rebels also clashed with Malian troops near the central town of Konna “with support from the French army,” the source told Al-Jazeera giving no details on the kind of support.

French military meanwhile continues massive preparations for a full-scale ground offensive after six days of airstrikes failed to prevent the militants, who have seized vast areas in the north of the former French colony, from moving towards Bamako.

On Tuesday, France announced it would deploy as many as 2,500 soldiers, tripling its contingent on the ground.

A French army officer stand guard on January 16, 2013 while Malian president welcomes service at the military airbase in Bamako. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)
A French army officer stand guard on January 16, 2013 while Malian president welcomes service at the military airbase in Bamako. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

A French Army Land Rover and pallets of rations are seen on a Royal Air Force C17 cargo aircraft as it prepares to leave for Bamako in Mali from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, January 16, 2013. (Reuters/Andrew Winning)
A French Army Land Rover and pallets of rations are seen on a Royal Air Force C17 cargo aircraft as it prepares to leave for Bamako in Mali from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, January 16, 2013. (Reuters/Andrew Winning)

 French soldiers prepare their ammunitions on January 16, 2013 at the military airbase in Bamako, before their deployment as part of the "Serval" operation against Islamists occupying northern Mali. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)
French soldiers prepare their ammunitions on January 16, 2013 at the military airbase in Bamako, before their deployment as part of the “Serval” operation against Islamists occupying northern Mali. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

French troops from the 21st Rima (French Navy Infantry Regiment) arrive near the town of Markala to secure a strategic bridge on the Niger river on January 16, 2013 after leaving the capital Bamako Bamako the day before. (AFP Photo/Michel Moutot)
French troops from the 21st Rima (French Navy Infantry Regiment) arrive near the town of Markala to secure a strategic bridge on the Niger river on January 16, 2013 after leaving the capital Bamako Bamako the day before. (AFP Photo/Michel Moutot)

A French army helicopter arrives on January 16, 2013 at the military airbase in Bamako, as part of the "Serval" operation against Islamists occupying northern Mali. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)
A French army helicopter arrives on January 16, 2013 at the military airbase in Bamako, as part of the “Serval” operation against Islamists occupying northern Mali. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

This handout picture released and taken on January 15, 2013 by French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) shows French soldiers carrying munitions at Bamako military airport as part of the "Serval" operation in Mali. (AFP Photo/Jeremy Lempin)
This handout picture released and taken on January 15, 2013 by French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) shows French soldiers carrying munitions at Bamako military airport as part of the “Serval” operation in Mali. (AFP Photo/Jeremy Lempin)

An Ivorian officer (sitting at R) and other ECOWAS army officers prepare a document during a meeting of chiefs of staff on January 16, 2013 at the Mali peacekeeping traning center in Bamako. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)
An Ivorian officer (sitting at R) and other ECOWAS army officers prepare a document during a meeting of chiefs of staff on January 16, 2013 at the Mali peacekeeping traning center in Bamako. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)