Malian soldiers drive in the direction of Diabaly, on the road near Markala, approximately 40 km outside Segou in central Mali, January 14, 2013.
Malian soldiers drive in the direction of Diabaly, on the road near Markala, approximately 40 km outside Segou in central Mali, January 14, 2013.

Residents are fleeing a Malian town seized earlier this week by Islamist militants, while others report fighting between French forces and the militants on the outskirts of the area.

?A local journalist in the nearby town of Niono told VOA correspondent Anne Look he has seen "many" people leaving Diabaly Thursday, fleeing south away from the northern region controlled by the militants. He said phone lines in Diabaly are not working and that residents have reported Islamists deployed throughout the town.

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Meanwhile, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said 1,400 of his troops are now in Mali. France plans to deploy 2,500 troops who will stay in the country until the situation is stable.

Ivory Coast army chief-of-staff Soumaila Bakayoko
Ivory Coast army chief-of-staff Soumaila Bakayoko (L) and Malian army chief-of-staff Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele (C) inspect Malian troops at an air base in Bamako, Mali, January 16, 2013.

West African military chiefs said 2,000 troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Togo will soon arrive in Mali - some beginning Thursday - as part of an intervention force authorized by the United Nations.

African Union Deputy Commissioner Erastus Mwencha said the organization always seeks a peaceful resolution, but he said there is a need now for a force to deploy in Mali.

"We need to send a strong signal to the separatists and the people who are there that the action cannot be tolerated, and we need to eventually get - our expectation finally is to restore peace to make sure Mali remains as an integral state and that the state is in charge, that Mali is in charge of its own affairs," he said.

Al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists seized control of northern Mali after renegade soldiers toppled the government in March, leaving a temporary power vacuum. The militants have imposed harsh conservative Islamic law across the north.

Foreign Troop Commitments to Mali

France sent troops into Mali Friday at the request of the country's interim government, as Islamist fighters began an offensive.

The U.S. military said Wednesday it is providing air transport and in-air refueling for the operation in Mali. U.S. officials have repeatedly said the U.S. is not involved in the fighting.

Western and United Nations officials are concerned that the Islamists could turn Mali into a base for terrorists and criminals.

Mali is a former French colony and France still has a variety of economic and political interests there.

President Francois Hollande said France's goals are stopping terrorist aggression, securing Bamako and allowing Mali to recover its territorial integrity. He said France will support the African force that soon will be in Mali.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.