As the French troops deployed on Wednesday after a rapid buildup of troops and equipment, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian forecast a protracted campaign to turn back a southward thrust by the rebels from their redoubts in the desert north of the country.

“We’re in a better position than last week, but the combat continues and it will be long, I imagine,” the minister said on RTL radio. “Today the ground forces are in the process of deploying,” he said. “Now the French forces are reaching the north.”

Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the French chief of staff, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that ground operations began overnight. “Now we’re on the ground,” Admiral Guillaud said. “We will be in direct combat within hours.”

Six days after French airstrikes partially halted an insurgent advance toward Bamako, the insurgents had implanted themselves among the population of the town of Diabaly, barging into some of the mud-brick houses in the battle zone, and thwarting attacks by French warplanes on Tuesday to dislodge them.

“They are in the town, almost everywhere in the town,” said Bekaye Diarra, who owns the pharmacy in Diabaly, which remained under the control of the insurgents. “They are installing themselves.”

Benco Ba, a parliamentary deputy there, described residents in fear of the conflict that had descended on them. “The jihadists are going right into people’s families,” he said. “They have completely occupied the town. They are dispersed. It’s fear, ” he said as it became clear that airstrikes alone will probably not be enough to root out these battle-hardened insurgents, who know well the harsh grassland and desert terrain of Mali.

Containing the rebels’ southern advance toward Bamako, the capital, is proving more challenging than anticipated, French military officials have acknowledged. And with the Malian Army in disarray and no outside African force yet assembled, displacing the rebels from the country altogether appears to be an elusive, long-term challenge.

The jihadists are “dug in” at Diabaly, Mr. Le Drian said Tuesday at a news conference. From that strategic town, they “threaten the south,” he said, adding: “We face a well-armed and determined adversary.”

Mr. Le Drian also acknowledged that the Malian Army had not managed to retake the town of Konna, whose seizure by the rebels a week ago provoked the French intervention. “We will continue the strikes to diminish their potential,” the minister said.

Using advanced attack planes and sophisticated military helicopters, the French campaign has forced the Islamists from important northern towns like Gao and Douentza. But residents there say that while the insurgents suffered losses, many of them had simply gone into the nearby bush.

“Bombing will weaken them, and it will stop their advance,” said Djallil Lounnas, an expert on the region at the University of Montreal who has written widely on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the main extremist groups in northern Mali. “But as soon as the bombing stops, they’ll come back.”

Since the French started bombing, he said, “the situation has changed slightly, but not fundamentally.”

Other analysts said that while forcing the insurgents from the cities was achievable, eliminating them altogether would require considerable additional effort.

“You can’t launch a war of extermination against a very tenacious and mobile adversary,” said Col. Michel Goya of the French Military Academy’s Strategic Research Institute. “We are in a classic counterinsurrectionary situation. They are well armed, but the weapons are not sophisticated. A couple of thousand men, very mobile.”

And they have been preparing for battle for months.

Adam Nossiter reported from Bamako, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Steven Erlanger, Alan Cowell and Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris, and Elisabeth Bumiller from Madrid.

French Troops Move North as Mali Rebels Dig In – New York Times
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