BAMAKO — French forces are preparing for a possible ground assault in Mali against al-Qaida-linked rebels who have continued to push south despite five days of French aerial bombardments.
France has put 800 soldiers on the ground in Mali since it began its rapid deployment Friday at the request of the Malian government.
The plan is to deploy 1,600 French soldiers in the short term and bring that number up to 2,500 in coming weeks.
About 100 vehicles, including tanks and armored vehicles, arrived overland from Ivory Coast early Tuesday morning. Other French troops are coming from Chad and France.
French soldiers from the 1st company, 2nd regiment of Marines, continued preparations Tuesday for an eventual deployment from their base just outside the Bamako airport.
The head of the company, whose last name is withheld for security reasons, said they are ready for whatever mission is thrown at them.
Captain Gregory says they are there to work in concert with the Malian military. He says for now, the company is building its strength - troops continue to arrive and they are preparing their gear. He says they will be ready to head out when they have their orders.
The captain says recent events have shown them that the "enemy is ready to fight and we should not underestimate them."
A military spokesman said the French soldiers being deployed to Mali are experienced. Many have already fought in Afghanistan, Lebanon or Ivory Coast.
The al-Qaida-linked rebel groups in northern Mali who launched their offensive south last week are proving difficult to rout, in particular in the central west part of the country.
The heavily armed rebels swept around the Mauritanian border Monday and captured the town of Diabaly, around 400 kilometers from Bamako. French airstrikes continued throughout the night, but residents told VOA Tuesday that the Islamists still hold the town.
VOA spoke to a Diabaly resident who said the Islamists are not threatening the population. He said he saw the bodies of some dead Malian soldiers, but it is unclear what happened to the rest who were stationed in the town.
Islamist rebels seized the northern half of Mali in April following a military coup in the south that further weakened an already ill-equipped and demoralized Malian army.
The U.N. Security Council has called on West African regional bloc ECOWAS to accelerate plans to send regional troops to fight alongside the Malian army.
ECOWAS defense chiefs of staff are in Bamako Tuesday to finalize plans to deploy as many as 3,300 soldiers to Mali in coming days and weeks. Nigeria, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso are among the countries that have pledged troops.
Nigerian Major General Shehu Abdulkadir will command the regional force.
"This is a battle situation, and it requires a lot of planning, a lot of thinking because a lot of logistics is required. And unless and until the planning is done properly, the mission will fail," he said. "The operation may fail, and we don't want to fail in this case. Therefore, we are not late. It is rather late, than never. Which one would you prefer? That we come in in a haste and don't get the mission accomplished. Or we do proper planning and come in equipped."
French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that with the help of the African troops, they are confident of victory.