BAMAKO, Mali — French soldiers are battling Islamist militants in direct clashes on the ground in central Mali, Malian and Western officials said Wednesday, acknowledging for the first time that France’s campaign against the militants who have seized much of the nation has involved more than just airstrikes.
France had said its ground forces had stayed out of the fighting, limiting its intervention in Mali to aerial assaults at the front lines and bombing runs on extremist strongholds deeper into the Islamist-held north.
But diplomats at the U.N. Security Council said Wednesday that 30 to 40 French special-forces troops landed in central Mali last week and joined Malian soldiers in ground combat against the militants almost immediately.
The French troops had been sent in as spotters to help French bombers find their targets, the diplomats said, but after the Malian forces alongside them faced an intense militant onslaught, the French troops found themselves engaged in skirmishes Friday.
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“Our enemies were well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained and determined,” said a senior French diplomat.
Beyond that, a Malian colonel said his army’s ground troops had joined French forces Wednesday and ringed the village of Diabaly, which Islamist fighters had seized the day before. Now, he said, they were trying to extricate the militants, who had taken over homes and ensconced themselves, managing to stay put despite hours of airstrikes by French warplanes the night before.
“It’s a very specialized kind of war,” the colonel said about the effort to dislodge the militants. “The town is surrounded.”
The fighting took place for much of the day, another top-ranking Malian officer said, confirming that French ground forces had engaged in combat alongside Malian soldiers against the jihadists entrenched in Diabaly.
The Islamists overran Diabaly and a nearby Malian army outpost Monday despite heavy air bombardment by French planes and helicopter gunships, embarrassing the French, who had said they had blunted the Islamist advance into southern Mali.
Since then, French officials have acknowledged that bombing alone would not be enough to drive out the Islamist fighters who have advanced ever farther into Mali, but they have typically been reluctant to say when exactly ground operations would begin.
French President François Hollande has been blunt about his overall intentions, however. “What do we plan to do with the terrorists?” he said Tuesday. “Destroy them. Capture them, if possible and make sure that they can do no harm in the future.”