Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

French Engage in Direct Clashes ; Ground Fighting in Mali Started upon Troops' Arrival, Officials Reveal

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

French Engage in Direct Clashes ; Ground Fighting in Mali Started upon Troops' Arrival, Officials Reveal

Article excerpt

The ground battles, which officials acknowledged for the first time on Thursday, expanded the campaign against the militants, who have seized much of the nation, beyond the airstrikes used initially.

French soldiers have battled Islamist militants in direct clashes on the ground in central Mali since just after landing last week, officials acknowledged for the first time on Thursday, as fighting continued with the arrival of hundreds of French reinforcements.

The ground battles expanded the campaign against the militants, who have seized much of the nation, beyond the airstrikes used initially, as the numbers of French commandos deployed continued to escalate.

The French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced on Thursday that French forces in Mali now numbered 1,400 -- 600 more than the figure given on Wednesday.

"This morning there are 1,400 French soldiers on Malian soil," he said. "There was combat yesterday, on the ground and from the air. There was more overnight and it is continuing at this moment." He gave no details or locations for the exchanges and did not say who was involved in the fighting.

France had said earlier that its ground forces had stayed out of the fighting so far, 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 United Nations Security Council said on Wednesday that 30 to 40 French special forces landed in central Mali a week ago 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 suddenly found themselves engaged in skirmishes on Friday. …

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