UK & World News
Mali: French Troops Launch Ground Assault
French troops have launched their first ground assault against Islamist rebels in Mali in a broadening of their operation against al Qaeda-linked militants.
France has called for international support against the rebels it says pose a threat to Africa and the West.
But it has acknowledged that it faces a long fight against the group, who seized the vast desert in Mali's north last year.
Residents said a column of some 30 French Sagaie armoured vehicles advanced toward rebel positions from the town of Niono, 300 km (190 miles) from the capital Bamako.
With the Malian army securing the northern border region near Mauritania, Islamist fighters were pinned down in the town of Diabaly.
Speaking from Bamako, Sky's special correspondent Alex Crawford said both sides had been engaged in hand-to-hand fighting.
"They are up against a fairly tough group and they appear to be much better armed than the French originally thought," she said.
A Malian military source said French special forces were taking part in the operation.
Crawford added that France was unprepared for how weak the Malian army is and has had to bring in huge numbers of extra troops.
Many inhabitants of northern Mali have welcomed the French attacks against Islamists who have imposed a harsh form of sharia law, cutting off hands and feet for crimes, and destroyed the famed shrines of the ancient desert town of Timbuktu.
The rebels have pledged to exact revenge for France's intervention and claimed responsibility for a raid on a gas field in Algeria.
They also warned they would bring the war to Paris.
Residents said French fighter jets struck the headquarters of the Islamic police in Niafunke, a sleepy town on the Niger river near Timbuktu, as part of Operation Serval, named after an African wildcat.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian acknowledged that France faced a difficult operation, particularly in western Mali where al Qaeda in the Maghreb's (AQIM) mostly foreign fighters have camps. Mauritania has pledged to close its porous frontier to the Islamists.
"It's tough. We were aware from the beginning it would be a very difficult operation," Mr Le Drian said.
President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday that French forces would remain in Mali until stability returned to the West African nation.
Mr Hollande said France hoped, however, to hand over to African forces in its former colony, "in the coming days or weeks."
Meanwhile the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into war crimes committed in Mali since the armed uprising began.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said "international crimes committed in Mali have deeply shocked the conscience of humanity".
Ms Bensouda's announcement comes some seven months after she launched a preliminary probe into allegations of crimes in Mali.
Her initial investigation suggests crimes including murder, rape, mutilation and summary executions have been committed.