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French forces will be in 'direct combat' in Mali within hours as ground operations launch

  • Young men play football in Bamako, Mali, Tuesday Jan. 15, 2013. French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists who seized the area, including its strategic military camp. A a convoy of 40 to 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast as France prepares for a possible land assault. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving in coming days. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

    Young men play football in Bamako, Mali, Tuesday Jan. 15, 2013. French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists who seized the area, including its strategic military camp. A a convoy of 40 to 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast as France prepares for a possible land assault. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving in coming days. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)  (The Associated Press)

  • French troops in two armored personnel carriers  drive through Mali's capital Bamako on the road to Mopti Tuesday Jan. 15, 2013. French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists who seized the area, including its strategic military camp. A a convoy of 40 to 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast as France prepares for a possible land assault. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving in coming days. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

    French troops in two armored personnel carriers drive through Mali's capital Bamako on the road to Mopti Tuesday Jan. 15, 2013. French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists who seized the area, including its strategic military camp. A a convoy of 40 to 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast as France prepares for a possible land assault. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving in coming days. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)  (The Associated Press)

France's military chief of staff says French forces will be in direct combat with Islamist militants in Mali "within hours."

Adm. Edouard Guillaud said Wednesday that French ground operations began overnight in Mali, a West African former French colony where militants linked to al-Qaida have gained territory since seizing control of the country's north earlier this year. Some fear more Islamist gains would turn the region into a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the West.

The move reversed France's earlier insistence that it would provide only air and logistical support for a military intervention led by African troops.

"Now we're on the ground," Guillaud said. "We will be in direct combat within hours."