PARIS -- Despite intensive airstrikes by French warplanes, Islamist fighters Monday overran a strategic village and military post in central Mali, offering an indication that the war against extremists who have carved out a jihadist state in the nation's north could be a long and difficult one.
Just hours after the French foreign minister said confidently that France had blocked "the advance of the terrorists," accomplishing its first mission in the conflict, the French defense minister acknowledged that the facts on the ground were different. A column of militants had pushed to within about 50 miles of one of Mali's largest cities, forcing France to evacuate its citizens in the area and bringing the Islamists a step closer to the capital -- closer, in fact, than they had been before French forces entered the fight.
Having entered the war quickly after an urgent plea from the Malian government, France now finds itself facing a well-equipped force of Islamist fighters -- with little immediate help from its allies to overcome them.
The U.S. has pledged logistical support but no troops. West African nations have promised 3,300 soldiers to fight alongside the Malian army, but they must be gathered, transported, trained and financed, and there have long been concerns about their readiness for the task ahead. The European Union has promised 250 military trainers to aid the Malian army, but it has yet to deploy them.
Moreover, the French mission is an ambitious one. Beyond pledging to stop the Islamists from pushing ever deeper into Mali -- a more challenging task in itself than French officials initially suggested -- France has also vowed to help restore Mali's territorial integrity, an apparent reference to driving the Islamists out of their vast, northern stronghold -- an area twice the size of Germany.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the French engagement would last only a matter of "weeks," but as French forces wait for their African counterparts to ready themselves, President Francois Hollande may find it hard to keep his vow not to use French ground forces in northern Mali.
"None of the conditions for success have been met," Dominique de Villepin, a former French prime minister, warned Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche. "Stopping the jihadists advance south, retaking the north, eradicating [terrorist] bases -- these are all different wars," he wrote.
France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the French forces had driven the Islamists out of one village, Kona, but that another column of Islamists had overrun the Malian army in the village of Diabaly on the western side of the Niger River, a loss that Malian officials confirmed.
"Diabaly is in the hands of the jihadists," the parliamentary deputy from the area, Benco Ba, said Monday evening. "They've burned the church, and they've burned the military camp. They've entered the houses of the families."
He said the Islamists had ordered the inhabitants to the village mosque, to pray. "We are completely taken aback by this, because there was an important military post there," Mr. Ba said. He said the village had been infiltrated by foot, and that the invading force included many "children," only 13 or 14 years old.
United Nations spokesman Eduardo del Buey said Monday an estimated 30,000 Malian civilians may have been displaced since the latest fighting began last week.
For now, the French are fighting only from the air in support of Malian troops, while also making airstrikes on northern extremist camps and strongholds deep inside Islamist-held territory, such as Gao.
Mr. Hollande's move to help Mali has earned wide support abroad and in France itself, but he has warned that there could be consequences for the seven French hostages held by extremists in Mali and perhaps even prompt a heightened terrorist threat at home.
France "has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia," Oumar Ould Hamaha, an insurgent leader, told Europe 1 radio. Stirring longstanding fears that the far-flung military operation in Mali could inspire vengeance as far away as Europe, he warned that the intervention had "opened the gates of hell for all the French."
Still, France has considerable assets to bring to bear and will get help from Britain and other European allies, as well as accelerated U.S. aid. On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said assistance could include air and other logistical support, but Defense Department officials said no decisions had been made on whether to assist with midflight refueling planes and air transport. U.S. spy planes and surveillance drones are in the meantime trying to get a sense of the chaos on the ground.
Mr. Panetta said that even though Mali was far from the United States, the Obama administration was deeply worried about extremist groups there, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.