French troops prepare for assault as fighters linked to al-Qaida bombed

French forces have led an all-night bombing campaign to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists.

A convoy of 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast as France prepared for a possible land assault. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighbouring Mali are also expected to begin arriving.

French president Francois Hollande launched an attack on Mali’s rebels, who are linked to al-Qaida, last week after the insurgents began advancing south.

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France’s action pre-empted a United Nations-approved plan for a military operation in Mali, which was expected to start about nine months from now. Mr Hollande decided a military response could not wait that long in its former colony.

French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected. Despite France’s five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly, putting them 250 miles from Mali’s capital, Bamako.

“They bombed Diabaly. They bombed the town all night long. I am hiding inside a house,” said Ibrahim Toure. “It only stopped this morning at around 6am”

France ordered the evacuation of around 60 French citizens living near Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali.

Mr Hollande said: “We are confident about the speed with which we will be able to stop the aggressors, the enemy, these terrorists. And with (the help) of the Africans that are being deployed, I think that in one more week we can restore Mali’s territorial integrity,” he said.

But the Islamists taunted the French, saying that they have vastly exaggerated their gains.

“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.

The al-Qaida-linked groups have imposed a brutal version of Islam. Young girls, pregnant and elderly women have been flogged for trangressing dress codes.