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French prepare to battle Islamists in Mali

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 8:40 p.m.

BAMAKO, Mali— French troops surrounded the desert village of Diabaly in central Mali on Wednesday, the first direct engagement since France began a military assault last week to oust radical Islamists who have advanced to within 250 miles of the capital.

The escalation set the stage for a perilous ground conflict. In waging ground combat, France is entering the comfort zone of the rebels, who know the desert terrain and are veterans of guerrilla warfare. They have melded into the local population, occupied houses and are hiding in mango groves to stage ambushes, residents said by telephone.

“The jihadists are mixing with the people, moving around in small groups of five,” said Salif Ouedraogo, an aid worker. “They are preventing people from leaving Diabaly. They want to use the people as human shields.”

What began as a campaign of aerial assaults appears to be expanding into a ground war, raising questions about France's military capability and political will to defeat the Islamists, a meld of al-Qaida militants, religious zealots and criminals who seized a Texas-sized territory in northern Mali in March.

While French forces have had experience combating guerrillas recently in Afghanistan, they have not played the lead role in a counter-insurgency campaign since its colonial days.

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