JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — French ground forces engaged in face-to-face fighting with al-Qaida-linked rebels in central Mali on Wednesday, according to French media, as the newly deployed troops launched their first ground operation in a battle to oust the militants.
The reported fighting took place in the town of Diabaly in central Mali, which fell to the Islamists earlier in the week but faced heavy French bombing overnight.
France, which once ruled Mali as a colonial power, sees the militants as potentially aiding or joining in terrorist strikes in Europe.
Adm. Edouard Giullaud, French military chief, confirmed the ground attack had begun in a radio interview early Wednesday. He said the French were facing guerrilla warfare but added that aerial attacks since Friday had destroyed rebel camps, depots and command centers.
West African forces are expected to join the French-Malian operation in coming days.
France has some 800 soldiers in Mali but will gradually deploy around 2,500. It has announced ambitious plans to crush the rebels, reunify the divided country and restore political stability, but it also has said its forces will leave as soon as African forces are ready to take over the operation.