France admitted last night that Islamist rebels were still in control of two key townships in Mali despite five days of pounding by French warplanes.
Substantial French ground forces, including armoured cars and light tanks, were moving towards the conflict zone last night for the first time. The aim of the force - backed by Malian government troops - appeared to be to recapture the town of Diabaly seized by an Islamist column on Monday.
As France braced for a lengthy and possibly arduous conflict, Paris appealed for more logistical help from its allies and for financial support from the Gulf. President Francois Hollande used a visit to the United Arab Emirates to urge Gulf states to contribute cash to military and humanitarian operations in France's former colony. A French minister, Alain Vidalies, complained logistical aid from other European countries had been "somewhat minimalâ?¦ with some regrettable absences" - thought to be a reference to Germany.
Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark have all offered transport aircraft and other forms of practical support, but no combat troops. The US and Canada have done likewise, while Berlin is still considering its position.
In New York on Monday night France won unanimous support in the United Nations Security Council for its argument that its armed intervention last Friday was legal and vital to prevent Mali from becoming a base for jihadist groups allied to al-Qa'ida. Paris expects to win similar backing - and more offers of practical aid short of troops - when European Union foreign ministers meet tomorrow.
Last night the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Ashton, said she would speed up plans for a military training mission in Mali to "provide immediate and longer-term help to the Malian government and people", although she did not give details.
French fighter-bombers continued yesterday to pound the positions of three Islamist groups in northern Mali, although the rebel groups were reported to have scattered into the desert, abandoning the towns that they controlled in the north. The French strategy is to hold the line across the narrow neck of land dividing the rebel-held north from the more fertile south where most Malians live. No attempt to reconquer the north will be made before a 3,000-strong force promised by a coalition of West African nations materialises. A column of 40 French armoured cars and tanks arrived in the capital, Bamako, yesterday. On Monday, a column of rebels struck across the Mauritanian border and seized the small settlement of Diabaly, 250 miles from Bamako. French airstrikes attacked positions around the village on Monday night and into yesterday. "They bombed Diabaly all night long," a Diabaly resident, Ibrahim Toure, said. "It only stopped this morning."
Mr Hollande, speaking in the Gulf, said the rebels "did not control" Diabaly but were merely using the settlement as a hiding place. "As soon as there is an African force that is backed by the international community... France will not have a reason to stay in Mali," he said. "We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave... Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory."
The French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian confirmed Paris plans to assemble a force of around 2,500 troops in Mali in the next few days, and yesterday Nigeria said it will send the first 200 of its 900-strong contribution to the African force to Mali today. Other troops are expected from countries including Benin, Togo, Niger and Guinea. But some officials in Nigeria expressed their doubts over its fitness for purpose. One senior official said: "The whole thing's a mess. We don't have any troops with experience of those extreme conditions.â?¦ And we're facing battle-hardened guys who live in those dunes."
The three principal rebel groups continued to taunt France despite reports of substantial losses.