Islamist rebels defied French air raids on Mali yesterday by capturing a small town and threatening to embroil France in a war "more dangerous than Afghanistan".
Despite the setback, the French government insisted its four-day-old campaign was going well. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius predicted Paris might be able to relinquish most of the fighting to a West African force within "a few weeks".
The French military is, nonetheless, planning to quadruple its 600-strong ground force in Mali to 2,500 men in the next few days, according to ' Le Monde'.
Other French government sources spoke of preparing forces on the ground – and public opinion at home – for a "lengthy campaign".
Paris admitted that a heavily armed force of Islamist fighters had routed Malian government troops and captured Diabaly, a small town in government-held territory close to the Mali-Mauratania border.
Bombers were diverted from attacks on desert bases further north to try to prevent the rebels advancing towards the capital, Bamako.
France told its citizens to leave the town of Segou, 80 kilometres to the south. Despite reports of an air strike killing as many as 100 rebel fighters near Gao, leaders of the loose alliance of extreme Islamic groups that have taken control of northern Mali remained defiant.
One rebel statement threatened to take the war to "the heart of France".
In a telephone interview with French radio, Omar Ould Hamahar, of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), said: "France has opened the gates of Hell. . . it has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."
Islamist militants in Somalia, 8,000 kilometres to the east, also taunted France by publishing a photo of a soldier killed during a failed attempt to release a French hostage on Saturday. Three images posted on Twitter showed a dead white man in military uniform with a crucifix around his neck.
"A return of the crusades, but the cross could not save him from the sword," the message said. The group claimed that the dead man was the "leader" of the French commandos who attacked its base on Saturday.
Officially, French strategy in Mali is to use air power to halt the offensive by Islamist groups before the ground fighting is turned over to a promised multinational task force from the West African co-operation area, Ecowas.
According to 'Le Monde', however, France is also preparing to beef up its ground forces in case the Malian army is unable to resist the rebels until the West African force is in place. (© Independent News Service)