BAMAKO, Mali -- After a punishing bombing campaign failed to halt the advance of al-Qaida-linked fighters, France pledged Tuesday to triple the size of its force in Mali, sending in hundreds more troops as it prepared for a land assault to dislodge the militants occupying the country's northern half.
The move reversed France's earlier insistence on providing only aerial and logistical support for a military intervention led by African ground troops.
France plunged headfirst into the conflict in its former colony last week, bombarding the insurgents' training camps, arms depots and safe houses in an effort to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a magnet for extremists from around the world.
Despite five days of airstrikes, the rebels have extended their reach, taking over a strategically important military camp in the central Malian town of Diabaly on Monday.
On Tuesday, France announced that it was increasing the number of troops from 800 to 2,500. The offensive was to have been led by thousands of African troops pledged by Mali's neighbors, but they have yet to arrive, making it increasingly apparent that France will be leading the attack, rather than playing a supporting role.
French President Francois Hollande told RFI radio early Tuesday that he believed that France could succeed in ousting the extremists in a week. By afternoon, he had outlined a far longer-term commitment. "We have one objective: To make sure that when we leave, when we end this intervention, there is security in Mali, legitimate leaders, an electoral process and the terrorists no longer threaten its territory," he said during a stop in the United Arab Emirates. "We are confident about the speed with which we will be able to stop the aggressors," he added.
Only France so far has boots on the ground. On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated the Obama administration's position, saying no American troops will be sent. The United States is helping with communications and intelligence-gathering, and may allow U.S. aircraft to help with transport.
A French military spokesman said the Islamists had managed to seize more territory despite the air assault because the fighters were embedding themselves with the population. He spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with military protocol.
Over the weekend, the rebels made their way to the rice-growing region, just north of the central Malian city of Segou, then seized Diabaly, a town of 35,000 that is home to an important military camp.
France ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French citizens living in the Segou region, then reportedly pounded the area around Diabaly with bombs all night Monday and again Tuesday.
The Islamists taunted the French.
"I would advise France not to sing their victory song too quickly. They managed to leave Afghanistan. They will never leave Mali," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a commander of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an extremist groups whose fighters are believed to be in Diabaly.
"The French resemble a fly that was attracted to a pot of honey. Now, their feet are sticky. They can't fly away anymore. ... It's to our advantage that they send in French troops on foot. We are waiting for them. And what they should know is that every French soldier that comes into our territory should make sure to prepare his will beforehand, because he will not leave alive."