A contingent of soldiers from Burkina Faso has deployed to central Mali, becoming the first African troops to link up with French and Malian forces fighting al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants.
Malian officials said Thursday about 150 soldiers from Burkina Faso had arrived in Markala, a town about 250 kilometers from the capital, Bamako.
VOA correspondent Idrissa Fall, who is in Bamako, says the soldiers are gathering near the base that French forces used to help re-take the town of Diabaly.
Fall also says French forces conducted airstrikes late Wednesday against Islamist militants in Ansongo, in east-central Mali.
"The French planes began bombing Ansongo, targeting the office of customs and another office which is called public work[s], where the Islamists used to hide their materials. After the bombing, I think all the Islamists went hiding in the market, in the trees. There is panic inside the population but the city is calm today," said Fall.
Fall reports soldiers from Niger are in camps near Mali's eastern border and a growing number of West African soldiers are arriving in Bamako.
In another development, a faction of one of the armed Islamist groups occupying northern Mali has announced it has broken away to form its own movement.
In a Thursday statement, a portion of the Ansar Dine rebel group said it had formed the Islamic Movement for Azawad. Fall says the newly formed group has expressed a willingness to seek a negotiated solution to the country's crisis.
"They condemned terrorism and say they are ready to fight against the terrorists," he said. "And, what is interesting is the guy who is leading the Islamic Movement for Azawad, Mr. Alghabass Ag Intallah, he is the son of the spiritual leader of the Tuareg and he was the closest aide of Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine."
In an interview Thursday with VOA, Islamic Movement for Azawad spokesman Mohamed Ag Aharib explained why the group was created. He said there have always been "moderates" in Ansar Dine who condemned radicalism. Aharib said after Islamist militants launched attacks in southern Mali, the moderates decided they could not go further.
He also said the new movement is seeking autonomy for northern Mali, not independence.
Ansar Dine rebels joined with ethnic Tuaregs to seize control of northern Mali following a March coup. Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups then took full control of the region, where they have moved to impose strict Islamic law.
In late December, Ansar Dine agreed to a cease-fire with the government, but suspended it earlier this month, saying the government was not sincere about peace negotiations.
Islamist fighters began pushing south into government-controlled areas shortly after the new year, prompting airstrikes from French forces acting at the request of Mali's government to halt the advance. French and Malian troops have retaken some rebel-held areas.
Fall says there are significant changes in the northern city of Gao, which had been under the control of Islamist militants.
"Sharia is no longer in application in Gao because the Islamists, most of them, they have left the city, " said Fall. "Now, women are going out with no veil and the younger people in Gao have begun smoking - smoking cigarettes openly in the city of Gao. When the Islamists were there it was forbidden to smoke. It was forbidden to listen to music. It was forbidden for women to go out without a veil. So, that is no longer in application because a big piece of the Islamists have disappeared from Gao."
In a related development, France has ordered special forces to protect a uranium site in neighboring Niger. Material from the Areva uranium mining site is used to help power France's nuclear power facilities.
Adama Drabo, 16, sits in the police station in Sevare, Mali, January 25, 2013. He was captured traveling without papers by Malian troops and arrested on suspicion of working for Islamic militant group MUJAO.
French soldiers sing the national anthem during a ceremony with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, before their departure to Mali, at Miramas Military base, France, January 25, 2013.
Malian troops man an observation post outside Sevare, Mali January 24, 2013.
French soldiers at an observation post outside Sevare, Mali, about 400 miles north of the capital Bamako, January 24, 2013.
A boy who fled northern Mali is seen at a camp for internally displaced persons in Sevare, Mali, January 23, 2013.
People who fled northern Mali are seen at a camp for internally displaced persons, in the city of Sevare, Mali, January 23, 2013.
Malians hang on the back of a packed minibus as they drive to Marakala, central Mali, 240 kilometers from Bamako, January 22, 2013.
A French soldier carries his equipment after arriving on a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at the airport in Bamako, Mali, January 22, 2013.
Malian soldiers carry a box of ammunition after searching through debris at a military camp in Diabaly, Mali, January 21 2013.
Charred pickup trucks, which according to local villagers, belonged to al-Qaida-linked rebels and destroyed by French airstrikes, are seen in Diabaly, Mali, January 21, 2013.
A French soldier secures a perimeter on the outskirts of Diabaly, Mali, January 21, 2013.
A Malian soldier walks inside a military camp used by radical Islamists and bombarded by French warplanes, in Diabaly, Mali, January 21, 2013.
An unidentified man takes a picture of the charred remains of trucks used by radical Islamists on the outskirts of Diabaly, Mali, January 21, 2013.
A Malian soldier checks identity papers in the center of Diabaly, Mali, January 21, 2013.