Islamist militants in Mali gained more territory Tuesday and are now closer to the Capital Bamako despite ongoing French aerial bombardments and ground operations.
Declaring France had “opened the gates of hell” with its assault, the rebels threatened retribution.
“France ... has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,” declared Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the rebel groups controlling the north, speaking on French radio Europe 1.
French fighter jets have been pummeling the insurgents' desert stronghold in the north since Friday, determined to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
The Islamist fighters responded with a counter-offensive Monday, overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
West African defense chiefs will on Tuesday approve plans to speed up the deployment of African troops against Islamist rebels in northern Mali, with some regional soldiers seen arriving next week.
“On Jan. 15, the committee of Chiefs of Defense Staff will meet in Bamako to approve the contingency plan,” the mission head of the ECOWAS grouping of West African states, Aboudou Toure Cheaka, told Reuters.
“I can tell you that in one week, the troops will effectively be on the ground,” he said, adding their immediate mission would be to help stop the rebel advance while preparations for a full intervention plan continued.
The United Nations said more than 30,000 people had fled the fighting and accused the Islamists of stopping thousands of them from travelling south into government-held zones.
The Islamists said they had made a “tactical retreat” from Timbuktu and other key towns where they have imposed a brutal version of Islamic law for nearly 10 months.
French jets on Monday hit Douentza, 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Bamako, which the Islamists have held since September. But residents said the fighters had left before the warplanes arrived.
In Timbuktu, where inhabitants have been executed or had limbs cut off in some of the worst abuses, the Islamists reportedly fled in anticipation of an attack.
“The mujahideen have left. They are really scared,” said one resident in the historic city, where the militants have destroyed centuries-old Muslim monuments.
In Gao, another northern city held by the Islamists, the jihadists were nowhere to be seen after bombing by Rafale warplanes on Sunday, residents there said.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly said in Paris that he believed more than 100 Islamists had been killed in the four days since France launched operations to stem a guerrilla advance towards Bamako.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledged that French forces were facing a “difficult” situation in the west of the country, where he said the rebels are well armed.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hailed the “quasi-unanimous” international backing for the offensive.
Britain and Canada have offered military transporters to the French military and the United States says it will share intelligence and provide logistical support.
Algeria said it had closed its 2,000-km (1,250-mile) desert border with northern Mali to stop Islamists crossing into the country. To the west, Mauritania said it had sent soldiers to close its border with Mali.
The Islamists seized upon the chaos of a military coup in Bamako in March to seize northern Mali, sparking widespread international fears that they could set up a terrorist safe haven.