Defying a relentless wave of French air strikes, Islamist fighters have seized a new town in western Mali, ousting soldiers from a key army base and putting the rebels within 400 kilometres of Mali's capital.
The unexpected rebel victory in Diabaly, after they had been pushed out of another town in central Mali, showed that the French-led military offensive could take longer than expected. The Islamists are now closer to the capital, Bamako, than at any previous point in the year-long rebellion.
The battle against the Islamist militia groups is rapidly escalating into a major international war, with civilians fleeing, French reinforcements arriving, and a growing number of countries pledging military equipment or troops to support the campaign.
France announced on Monday that its troop commitment to Mali would be increased to 2,500 in the days ahead. It has already deployed 600 French soldiers in Mali in what it calls "Operation Serval" – named after an African wildcat.
Other countries, including Canada, are promising to send military aircraft to Mali to help the campaign against the rebels. The United States, Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Germany are among the others offering logistical help to the French-led campaign. About 3,000 troops have also been promised by West African nations in a mission that will be accelerated from its original slow timetable.
But the civilian toll is also increasing. An estimated 30,000 civilians may have been displaced from their homes as a result of the fighting and air strikes in central and northern Mali, the United Nations said on Monday. Thousands of refugees from Mali are seeking shelter in neighbouring Mauritania.
Some of the displaced are trapped in central Mali because of the fighting and official restrictions on their movement. "People have been prevented from travelling to the south by the Malian authorities," said a statement by UNICEF, the UN children's agency. "The situation remains very serious for women and children affected by the fighting."
France's air strikes have driven the rebels out of several major towns and into nearby hiding places. "The terrorist groups are, in effect, in retreat," French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
But he also acknowledged resistance by "heavily armed militants" in Diabaly and western Mali, where he described the situation as "difficult." He said France had expected a counterattack in western Mali "because that is where the most determined, the most organized and fanatical elements are."
The rebels vowed to retaliate against the foreign attackers. "France has opened the gates of hell for all the French," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for an Islamist militia called MUJWA, which controls the northern Mali town of Gao. "She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."
The French air strikes, led by sophisticated Rafale and Mirage warplanes, will quickly demolish most of the known rebel camps and houses. But they have no chance of rooting out the rebels from northern Mali unless they are supported by a substantial ground force.
Mali's army, which has been repeatedly routed by the rebels, will be insufficient by itself, so the ground war will have to be reinforced by West African forces – or by French units, which France has so far rejected.