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French strikes hit key Mali town held by Islamists

BAMAKO, Mali — Fighting erupted between Islamists and Malian soldiers in the city whose capture by militants first prompted French military intervention, while French forces kept up their bombardments of another key town, fleeing residents said Thursday.

Mali soldiers claimed to have recaptured the central town of Konna, although this could not be confirmed, while the French continued airstrikes on the Islamist-held town of Diabaly, at least 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.

Residents who escaped Diabaly said French bombs continued to hit Islamist positions there overnight but they said the town remained under the control of the radical Islamists who have advanced south after controlling northern Mali for nearly a year.

"There were bombardments last night in Diabaly and civilians have continued to come here to Niono, said Oumar Coulibaly, a resident of Niono. "This morning I saw people who came from Diabaly and the Islamists still occupy the city."

Diabaly, a town of some 35,000 people, is just 250 miles (400 kilometers) northeast of the capital of Bamako.

Meanwhile, France has increased its troops' strength in Mali to 1,400, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

"The actions of French forces, be it air forces or ground forces, are ongoing," said Le Drian in Paris on Thursday. "They took place yesterday, they took place last night, they took place today, they will take place tomorrow."

Fleeing residents have said that Islamist extremists have taken over their homes in Diabaly and were preventing other people from leaving. They said the militants were melting into the population and moving only in small groups on streets in the mud-walled neighborhoods to avoid being targeted by the French.

"They stationed themselves outside my house with a heavy weapon, I don't know what sort it was. After that came the bombing, which went on from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and after that, one of them (rebels) jumped over my garden wall to grab the keys to my car," said Thiemogo Coulibaly.

In the narrow waist of central Mali, fighting reignited in the town of Konna, which the Islamists attacked last week and seized a day before French launched its military offensive.

A Malian military official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said the fighting began Wednesday between Malian soldiers and Islamists from the group Ansar Dine.

The official claimed that Malian forces had forced the Islamists out of Konna, a claim that could not be immediately corroborated.

Abdrahmane Guirou, a nurse, said four wounded soldiers had been brought to the local hospital.

The first troops from Mali's neighbors are expected Thursday, nearly a week after French forces launched their military operation to dislodge al-Qaida-linked militants from a harsh desert region the same size as France.

Aboudou Toure Cheaka, special representative for the president of the Economic Community of West African States commission, said the troops from Nigeria would be arriving sometime Thursday and forces from Niger are to be deployed soon along the Niger-Mali border.

France expects to ramp up to a total of 2,500 soldiers that will include French Foreign Legionnaires. It has committed helicopter gunships, fighter jets, surveillance planes and refueling tankers in the fight against the Islamists who seized control of northern Mali last year.

EU foreign ministers on Thursday approved sending a military training mission to Mali.

No combat role is envisioned for the EU training mission. Instead, it will train soldiers, provide advice on command and control procedures, and offer instruction on human rights and the protection of civilians.

A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies with the majority of its 15 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed in April 2012, when Islamist extremists took over the main cities in the country's north amid disarray following a military coup, and began enforcing their version of strict Shariah law.

Security experts warn that the extremists are carving out their own territory in northern Mali from where they can plot terror attacks in Africa and Europe. Estimates of how many fighters the Islamists have range from less than 1,000 to several thousand. The militants are well-armed and funded and include recruits from other countries.

Despite training from U.S. and other Western trainers, the Mali army has been ineffective in fighting the militants.

Last December, the U.N. Security Council passed a cautious resolution, outlining steps that needed to be taken before an international military intervention, one which diplomats said would not occur before at least September.

But in a surprise move last week, French President Francois Hollande authorized airstrikes in Mali to stop a sudden southward push by three Islamist rebel groups. The Islamists warned that France had "opened the doors of hell" and that all French nationals would pay, as would any country that helped the military intervention.

American officials say they are providing intelligence to its European ally and are considering deploying American aircraft to land in Mali for airlift or logistical support. The U.S. is offering possible surveillance drones, too, but won't entertain notions of sending American troops to keep terrorists from carving out a safe haven like they did in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"We share the same goals as the French and of the states in the region. We support what the French are attempting to do," said Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, speaking Wednesday at the Wilson Center in Washington.

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Associated Press writers Don Melvin in Brussels and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

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