BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French special forces inched closer to an al-Qaida-held town, fighting erupted in another center and army troops raced to protect a third, as the Islamic extremists controlling northern Mali ceded no ground Thursday, digging into the areas they already occupy and sending out scouts to widen their reach.
Banamba, a town just 90 miles (144 kilometers) from the capital, Bamako, was put on alert overnight and a contingent of roughly 100 Malian soldiers sped there on Thursday after a reported sighting of jihadists in the vicinity, the closest the extremists have come to the seat of government of this West African country, officials said.
France has encountered fierce resistance from the extremist groups, whose tentacles extend not only over a territory the size of Afghanistan in Mali, but also another 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) to the east in Algeria, where fighters belonging to a cell in Mali stormed a BP-operated plant and took dozens of foreigners hostages, including Americans in retaliation for the French-led military operation in Mali. They demanded the immediate end of the hostilities in Mali, with one commander, Oumar Ould Hamaha, saying that they are now "globalizing the conflict" in revenge for the military assault on Malian soil.
The first Malian troops arrived in Banamba late Wednesday, with a second group coming on Thursday. The small town northeast of Bamako is connected by a secondary road to the garrison town of Diabaly, which was taken by Islamic extremists earlier this week, and has been the scene of intense fighting with French military, as French troops continued to move closer, following another night of airstrikes.
To the south of Banamba, flanked by emerald rice fields, and crisscrossed by irrigation canals, is the first government-held city, Niono. And another 75 miles (120 kilometers) south is Segou, one of the largest towns in Mali, and the administrative capital of its central region. As refugees from Diabaly continued to flee south, authorities announced a state of alert including the closure of the largest road after sundown, fearing that the al-Qaida-linked fighters would try to infiltrate the towns in the south.
"Starting at 6 p.m. tomorrow night, the road between Segou and Niono, the M33 highway, will be closed," said the Prefect of Niono Seydou Traore. "Neither cars, nor motorcycles, nor people on foot will be able to travel, as a security measure."
A city official in Banamba who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said they had received reports that a rebel convoy had left Diabaly on the road headed to Banamba.
"We don't have a (military) base here, we have no defenses. So the military has come to secure the town," he said. "No jihadists have entered our town. But there are reports that a column (of rebel vehicles) was seen heading toward us from Diabaly."
France has stepped up its involvement every day, after launching the first air raids last Friday in an effort to stop the rebels' advance. On Thursday, it increased its troop strength to 1,400, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
"The actions of French forces, be it air forces or ground forces, are ongoing," said Le Drian in Paris. "They took place yesterday, they took place last night, they took place today, they will take place tomorrow."
After a meeting in Brussels of European Union foreign ministers, Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly said it was necessary to mobilize "the entire international community" to help Mali and the region.
"What is happening in Mali is a global threat," Coulibaly told journalists at a press conference. "Remember what happened on Sept. 11," he said, referring to the terrorist attacks in the United States. "It is that terrorism can happen anywhere, at any moment, to anyone."
He pointed out that the hostage-taking in Algeria revealed to the world the true nature of the extremists. At least 34 of the hostages and 15 kidnappers were killed on Thursday, after Algerian helicopters strafed the remote Sahara gas plant, located in far eastern Algeria, according to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which carries reports from al-Qaida's groups in Africa.
France remains alone as the only foreign power with boots on the ground, though on Thursday, a contingent of around 100 Togolese soldiers arrived at the airport. Nigerian troops from the country's Battalion 1 are also expected in coming hours, though it's unclear whether the African forces will take part in the land assault.
EU foreign ministers on Thursday approved sending a military training mission to Mali, which will train local soldiers and provide advice, though they will not take part in combat.
On Wednesday, around 100 French Marines took over a major bridge over a large, turbulent river just north of the central administrative capital of Segou at the locality of Markala.
The river is the major separator between the southern area still firmly under government control, and the north. Any rebel convoy coming from Diabaly, located roughly 120 miles (200 kilometers) north of the river, would need to cross the bridge. David Bache, a freelance journalist embedded with the French marines said by telephone that around 100 soldiers had taken positions at the bridge, setting up a camp, where they have parked 18 armored vehicles, mounted with artillery.
Fleeing residents say that Islamic extremists have taken over their homes in Diabaly and were preventing other people from leaving. They said the fighters were melting into the population and moving only in small groups on streets in the mud-walled neighborhoods to avoid being targeted by the French.
"They stationed themselves outside my house with a heavy weapon, I don't know what sort it was. After that came the bombing, which went on from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and after that, one of them (rebels) jumped over my garden wall to grab the keys to my car," said Thiemogo Coulibaly.
A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies with the majority of its 15.8 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed last March, following a coup in the capital which created the disarray that allowed Islamist extremists to take over the main cities in the distant north.
Security experts warn that the extremists are carving out their own territory in northern Mali from where they can plot terror attacks in Africa and Europe.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson contributed to this report in Bamako, Mali. Don Melvin in Brussels, Lori Hinnant in Paris and Bradley Klapper in Washington also contributed to this report.