BAMAKO, Mali: Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have called for an end to France's ''crusade'' in Mali, killing two people and taking more than 40 foreign hostages at a gas field in neighbouring Algeria in response to the French military action.
The attack on the In Amenas gas field has raised fears the conflict could spread across the Sahel and Sahara regions of west Africa. On Wednesday, Chad said it would send 2000 soldiers to Mali.
France says Mali campaign will be 'long'
France are in it for the long haul against Islamist rebels in Mali. ECOWAS troops are expected on the ground by the weekend.
After days of French air strikes on Islamist positions in northern Mali, controlled by the rebels since April, French and Malian ground forces battled the insurgents in the central towns of Diabaly and Konna.
But the gas field assault has dramatically raised the stakes. Islamists said they were holding 41 foreign hostages, including French, British, Japanese and American citizens.
A group calling itself ''Signatories for Blood'' claimed the action in a post to the Mauritanian website Alakhbar. The attack was in reprisal for ''the crusade being waged by French forces in Mali'' and for Algerian co-operation, it said, calling for an end to the operation.
The attackers also demanded the release of 100 Islamists held in Algeria in exchange for their hostages, a worker at the gas field said.
The attack came less than a week after France launched its air strikes on Islamists in northern Mali and just days after Algeria opened its airspace to French fighter jets.
In central Mali, French troops engaged Islamist fighters in Diabaly, a town seized two days earlier by the Algerian Abou Zeid, an al-Qaeda leader.
''The special forces are currently in Diabaly, in close-quarter combat with the Islamists. The Malian army is also in place,'' a Malian security source said.
The French military said it had secured a strategic bridge on the Niger river near the town of Markala, south of Diabaly, blocking a key route to Bamako.
The French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the western zone around Diabaly was home to ''the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups. It's under way there but it's difficult''.
The US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, said US assistance to France in Mali was being delayed because of questions raised by Obama administration lawyers. ''I find that every time I turn around I face a group of lawyers,'' Mr Panetta said. The administration lawyers want ''to be sure that they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis to do what we are being requested to do'' in supporting the French effort, he said.
On Tuesday, a State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said the US could not directly help Mali's government, which was installed through a coup led by a military officer who had received Pentagon training. She said there were no restrictions on helping allies such as France and other African nations, which are preparing to send forces to Mali under United Nations authorisation.
The US is preparing to send military trainers and supplies to assist those soldiers before they deploy to Mali, she said.
The Chad announcement on Wednesday will be a significant boost to the African forces gathering there. Nigeria will command the UN-approved multinational African intervention force which numbers 3300 and has promised 900 troops. Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo, Senegal, Guinea and Ghana have also promised troops. Some 2000 troops will arrive within the next 10 days, says a report from a meeting of regional army chiefs.
The UN and aid agencies report that 370,000 Malians have been displaced by the fighting.
Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg