French ground troops in close-quarter combat with IslamistsAgence France-Presse . Markala
French troops engaged in close combat with Islamist rebels on Wednesday in Mali as al-Qaeda-linked fighters attacked a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria taking several foreigners hostage.
After days of airstrikes on Islamist positions in the territory they have occupied since April, French and Malian troops battled the insurgents in the small town of Diabaly, some 400 kilometres north of Bamako.
‘The special forces are currently in Diabaly, in close-quarter combat with the Islamists. The Malian army is also in place,’ a Malian security source said.
This was confirmed by a regional security source.
The source added that French soldiers were ‘on alert’ in the town of Niono, 50 kilometres south of Diabaly, as well as in the nearby town of Markala.
Diabaly was seized on Monday by fighters led by Algerian Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as the Islamists remained on the offensive even as French fighter jets pounded their positions.
The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the western zone where Diabaly lies was home to ‘the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups. It’s under way there but it’s difficult.’
Meanwhile in Algeria state media said that one person had been killed and seven wounded, two of them foreigners, in an attack on a British oil giant BP field in Amenas, in the Sahara desert.
The gas plant is located 1,300 kilometres southeast of Algiers, close to the Libyan border.
An Algerian deputy said five staff — one French national and four Japanese — had been taken hostage.
The Irish foreign ministry said a man from Northern Ireland was also among the hostages. A Norwegian man was also reported taken hostage.
‘We are members of al-Qaeda and we came from northern Mali,’ an Islamic militant said by telephone in claiming responsibility for the attack. He said his group belonged to a fighting unit led by renowned one-eyed jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM leader.
The attack was the first reprisal by the Islamists who have vowed to strike back, and comes after Algeria threw its support behind the Mali offensive and opened its airspace to French fighter jets.
The Islamists who have controlled an area larger than France in northern Mali since April, have fled many of their strongholds since the French army launched its assault on January 11. But they claim their retreat was merely tactical.
Both Paris and Islamist experts warn the jihadists are better armed and trained than expected and the battle is likely to be drawn-out and complex.
A first contingent of 190 Nigerian troops was due to arrive in Bamako on Wednesday as part of a regional force of over 3,000 soldiers from Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo.
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