Residents of Niono, a city in the centre of Mali which is just south of a town that was overrun by the jihadists earlier this week, said they saw trucks of French soldiers arrive overnight.

A week after French aircraft rushed to the aid of a defeated and demoralised Malian army, French ground forces have begun fighting alongside the Malian army in Diabaly, a town 350 km north of capital Bamako.

Since last year, northern Mali has been overrun by Islamist rebels organised under the banners of the Ansar Dine, the Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Last Friday, France sent in jets, helicopter gunships, and special forces to Central Mali as Islamist rebels advanced till 50 km from a major military base in Sevare, and captured the town of Konna. Since then, France has deployed 2,500 troops in its former colony and bombed targets as far north as Gao and Timbuktu, even as analysts warned of a prolonged and difficult mission. The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has promised about 3,000 troops, expected to arrive by the weekend.

The fighting has proved hard, and progress slow. Over the weekend, the rebels opened a second front in Diabaly, and security forces are yet to dislodge the rebels from Konna.

“The rebels have entered people’s homes in Diabaly,” said Lieutenant Colonel Diarran Kone, spokesperson for the Malian Army, “They are using them as shields and not allowing people to leave the town.” Earlier this week, reports from the north suggested that the Malian army was also preventing the free movement of civilians.

Meanwhile, an al-Qaeda affiliate attacked a gas production field in southern Algeria on Wednesday and kidnapped at least nine foreigners, including a French national, according to a Reuters report. The raid was conducted about 100 km from the Algeria-Libya border. Algeria has declined sending troops to Mali, with whom it shares a long border, but has allowed France the use of its airspace. Islamist groups have warned of reprisals against France for its intervention in Mali.

Germany commits 2 transport planes to Mali effort

AP adds:

Germany is sending two military aircraft to help transport African troops who will aid in the international effort to drive back al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Mali.

Defence Ministry Thomas de Maiziere says the two C-160 planes will depart once technical details have been resolved.

De Maiziere told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that they would be used to take forces from the 15-nation in West African regional group known as ECOWAS to Mali’s capital Bamako.

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