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French army tanks are heading from the Malian capital Bamako under the cover of darkness towards the north of the country, to target areas currently in the hands of militant islamists.

It is the first time ground troops have been deployed in the six-day operation.

French air strikes against militant strongholds in the north began last Friday and are continuing.

The town of Diabali, 400 kilometres from Bamako, fell on Tuesday. France’s foreign minister has also admitted the Malian army is still not in full control of Kona, the key town whose fall prompted the foreign intervention last week.

Paris currently has 800 soldiers deployed in Mali, and the aim is to increase that number to 2,500. France says Belgium, the US, Canada, Denmark and Germany have also offered support.

The operation has been largely welcomed by Malians, who have witnessed their country suffer a series of defeats by rebel forces. The general feeling is that the rebels will not be able to gain much ground now that the French-led intervention has begun.

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