BAMAKO, Mali -- French special forces inched closer to an al-Qaida-held town, fighting erupted in another center and army troops raced to protect a third, as the Islamic extremists controlling northern Mali ceded no ground Thursday, digging into the areas they already occupy and sending out scouts to widen their reach.
Banamba, a town just 90 miles from the capital, Bamako, was put on alert overnight, and a contingent of roughly 100 Malian soldiers sped there Thursday after a reported sighting of jihadists in the vicinity -- the closest the extremists have come to the seat of government of this West African country, officials said.
France has encountered fierce resistance from the extremist groups, whose tentacles extend not only over a territory the size of Afghanistan in Mali, but also another 600 miles to the east in Algeria, where fighters belonging to a cell in Mali stormed a BP-operated plant and took dozens of foreigners hostages, including Americans, in retaliation for the French-led military operation in Mali. They demanded the immediate end of the hostilities in Mali, with one commander, Oumar Ould Hamaha, saying they are now "globalizing the conflict" in revenge for the military assault on Malian soil.
The first Malian troops arrived in Banamba late Wednesday, with a second group coming Thursday. The small town northeast of Bamako is connected by a secondary road to the garrison town of Diabaly, which was taken by Islamic extremists earlier this week, and has been the scene of intense fighting with French military, as French troops continued to move closer, following another night of airstrikes.
To the south of Banamba, flanked by emerald rice fields and crisscrossed by irrigation canals, is the first government-held city, Niono. And another 75 miles south is Segou, one of the largest towns in Mali and administrative capital of its central region. As refugees from Diabaly continued to flee south, authorities announced a state of alert including closure of the largest road after sundown, fearing that the al-Qaida-linked fighters would try to infiltrate the towns in the south.
A city official in Banamba who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said they had received reports that a rebel convoy had left Diabaly on the road headed to Banamba.
France has stepped up its involvement every day, after launching the first air raids last Friday in an effort to stop the rebels' advance. On Thursday, it increased its troop strength to 1,400, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
France remains alone as the only foreign power with boots on the ground, though on Thursday, a contingent of around 100 Togolese soldiers arrived at the airport. Nigerian troops from the country's Battalion 1 are also expected in coming hours, though it is unclear whether the African forces will take part in the land assault.