Bamako - The first troops from a multinational African intervention force were expected in Mali on Wednesday as French soldiers drove out to face Islamist fighters in the north, in their first operation.
A company of 190 troops is expected to arrive, part of a Nigerian contribution that will eventually total 900. Nigeria is leading the regional force, to which Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged numbers.
West African army chiefs in Bamako were expected to resume talks on Wednesday on the roll-out of the UN-mandated, 3 300-strong regional intervention force in the former French colony.
On Tuesday, French soldiers drove out of the capital Bamako in at least 30 armoured vehicles.
Witnesses said hundreds of Malian and French troops were headed to Diabaly, a town 400km north of the capital seized by the rebels on Monday. Another convoy was also seen leaving Bamako in a northerly direction.
Although French fighter jets have launched strikes on Diabaly, a regional security source said Tuesday the insurgents were still there.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France would triple its presence in Mali to 2 500.
President Francois Hollande stressed however that French troops would not be in Mali for good but would stay until security had been restored and the "terrorists" eliminated.
Hollande will chair a cabinet meeting on the crisis on Wednesday, while Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault attends a parliamentary debate on the intervention. Political reaction at home has been largely supportive of the intervention.
Le Drian conceded that the Malian forces around Diabaly were struggling.
He also confirmed reports that the insurgents were still present in the central town of Konna, despite claims from Malian officers late Saturday that they had recaptured it.
"We are up against a determined adversary that is well-equipped and has not given up, but we have hit them hard with our strikes, including those deep in their territory," he said.
It was the fall of Konna and a threat from Islamist fighters that they would move on south to the capital that prompted France to intervene last week.
'Jihadists in it for the long haul'
The Islamists took over the vast desert territories of northern Mali last April, exploiting the power vacuum created by a military coup the previous month.
Since France launched its air offensive, they have fled key northern stronghold towns where they had imposed their brutal version of Islamic law. But analysts have warned the withdrawal was likely a tactical move.
"The jihadists are in it for the long-haul. They are comfortable in this situation: the vast desert, a difficult terrain, a precarious security situation," said Tunisian Islamist expert Alaya Allani.
One resident in the northern town of Gao reported that the Islamists had cut telecommunication links late Tuesday, rendering land lines and mobile phones useless.
"They accuse residents of giving information to the [French] soldiers," he told AFP by satellite phone.
The UN and aid agencies have also expressed fears for civilians caught up in the conflict.
So far 144 500 refugees have fled the unrest to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, the UN humanitarian agency said Tuesday, while another 230 000 were internally displaced.
French diplomats and aid agencies plan to meet in Paris and Bamako this week to address the challenge.
The hold al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have on vast swathes of northern Mali has fuelled fears that the zone - a hostile, semi-arid region more than twice the size of France - could become a haven and training ground for terrorists.
Belgium offered two C-130 transport planes and two helicopters to back up France's offensive, while Britain and Canada have offered troop transporters. Germany is considering logistical or humanitarian support.
Hollande met on Tuesday with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who raised the possibility of participating in the Mali operation, according to the French president's entourage.
Hollande also intimated that Chad and the United Arab Emirates could take part. However, Qatar and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, of which Mali is a member, have urged dialogue instead of military intervention.
At home, France has deployed 700 troops in and around Paris, indicating mounting concern over potential reprisal attacks.
Mali's militant Islamists have warned France has "opened the doors of hell" by unleashing its warplanes and called on fellow extremists to hit back on French soil.