FRENCH troops are battling Islamist rebels in Mali as al-Qaeda-linked fighters claim to have taken 41 foreigners hostage in a retaliatory attack in neighbouring Algeria.
After days of air strikes on Islamist positions in the northern territory the rebels seized in April, French and Malian troops battled the insurgents in the small town of Diabaly, some 400 kilometres north of the capital Bamako.
In a dramatic development over the border in Algeria, Islamists claimed to be holding 41 foreigners hostage after an attack on a gas field in the country’s east.
French troops drive to the key Malian city of Segou. Ground fighting has begun in the neighbouring town of Diabaly. Photo: Reuters
‘‘Forty-one westerners including seven Americans, French, British and Japanese citizens have been taken hostage,’’ a spokesman for the Islamists told the Mauritanian News Agency as well as Sahara Media.
The attack was the first reprisal by the Islamists for the French air and ground assault that began on January 11. It comes after Algeria threw its support behind the Mali offensive and opened its airspace to French fighter jets.
Wednesday’s ground battle in Mali was taking place in Diabaly, a town seized two days earlier by fighters led by Algerian militant Abu Zeid, one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
‘‘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 on condition of anonymity.
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.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the western zone where Diabaly lies was home to ‘‘the toughest, most fanatical and best-organised groups. It’s under way there but it’s difficult.’’
A Malian army source said the Islamists had enrolled child soldiers and were using the population as a shield.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) said it had launched a war crimes probe targeting the rebels.
‘‘Different armed groups have caused havoc and human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence,’’ chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said. ‘‘I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes.’’
In Algeria, state media said two foreigners, including a Briton, had been killed and six wounded, in the dawn raid on a bus carrying engineers near a gas field.
‘‘We are members of al-Qaeda and we came from northern Mali,’’ a militant told the news agency Agence France-Presse by telephone. He said his group belonged to a fighting unit led by the renowned one-eyed jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former AQIM leader.
The gas field, jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach, is located 1300 kilometres south-east of Algiers, close to the Libyan border.