France's campaign in Mali escalated into a ground war yesterday when troops fought to prevent al-Qa'ida and its allies from striking deep inside territory previously under government control.
After six days of air raids, French special forces were fighting alongside the Malian army near the town of Diabaley, 220 miles north-east of the capital, Bamako.
The onset of the battle shows how the conflict has spread. Diabaley is in southern Mali, well away from the Saharan stronghold of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies in the north.
By advancing into this area on Monday, AQIM showed how it could outflank its enemies and strike behind the supposed front line.
If it can hold Diabaley, its next logical target would be the town of Segou, on the main road linking Bamako with the rest of the country. A convoy of 50 vehicles laden with French soldiers left the capital on Tuesday night with the aim of blocking AQIM's advance.
The bulk of the Malian army is deployed further north, around the town of Mopti, so French troops were urgently needed to plug a gap and protect Segou. Some 800 French troops are already in Mali, with a total of 2,500 expected to be deployed. One battlegroup will secure the capital, while the other will go north.
The urgency is such that units have been sent north almost as soon as they land at Bamako-Senou International Airport. Colonel Idrissa Traore, from the Malian army, told reporters that AQIM and its allies were heavily armed.
"They have taken weapons from Libya and they have raised a lot of money from kidnapping, from holding hostages and from trafficking in drugs," he said. "They have used this to buy weapons."
Last year, AQIM and Tuareg rebels routed the army and seized three regions of northern Mali covering 300,000 square miles.
France's intervention began when AQIM advanced into central Mali last week and threatened Mopti, the only garrison town standing between the Islamists and the capital. Without the arrival of French forces, people in Bamako fear their city would have fallen into AQIM's hands.
On Boulevard de L'independence, street sellers have begun offering French tricolours. Street trader Yahya Drame (21) said: "The French are trying to save us. They are the only ones who came quickly to help us." (©Daily Telegraph, London)