About 200 French infantrymen supported by six combat helicopters and reconnaissance planes advanced Monday toward the town of Diabaly, seized one week ago by Islamic extremists including fighters under the command of the mastermind of Algeria’s recent terror attack.

Diabaly, a small bucolic town in central Mali, has become the scene of the first major battle in the war to re-take northern Mali from fighters who have occupied the region for nine months.

“The operation in Diabaly is currently ongoing,” said Capt. Romain, the deputy in charge of France’s 21st Marine Infantry regiment, positioned in the town of Markala about 140 km from the front line.

“We don’t know what we will find there,” he said of Diabaly, giving only his first name in keeping with French military policy.

On the road to Diabaly, there were scenes that indicated the area is returning to normal life. Women washed children in an irrigation canal, others washed clothes and placed them to dry on the banks. Families with suitcases and bags headed north in donkey-drawn carts, apparently returning home after fleeing the conflict.

The French military used fighter planes and helicopter gunships to carry out a dozen operations over the weekend in Mali.

France said it had targeted “terrorist vehicles” in six of the strikes over the last 24 hours, and that the campaign against the militants was making progress.

In an interview with France-5 TV, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he wasn’t aware of any civilian casualties.

Also Sunday, the extremist group behind the deadly hostage crisis in Algeria threatened more attacks against foreign targets if France does not bring an immediate halt to its military operation in Mali.

In a statement, the Masked Brigade warned of more such attacks against any country backing France’s military intervention in Mali.

“We promise all the countries that participated in the Crusader campaign ... that we will carry out more operations if they do not reverse their decision,” it said, according to a transcript released by SITE Intelligence Group.

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