French forces have assaulted the besieged town of Diabaly in central Mali, after an earlier rebel counter-offensive took the town, resident says.
The French bombing campaign, which continued through Monday night, came after the French ambassador to the United Nations said that his country launched the military intervention in the West African country because it believed that "the existence of Mali" was at stake.
Gerard Araud told a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council that France was responding to calls for help from the government of the former French colony.
A meeting of the 15-nation UN Security Council on Mali expressed unanimous "understanding and support" for the military intervention, Araud told reporters late on Monday.
On Tuesday morning, Ibrahim Toure told The Associated Press by telephone that he heard explosions throughout the night, coming from the direction of Diabaly's military camp.
Francois Heisbourg, special advisor at the Foundation for Strategic Research based in Paris, told Al Jazeera:
"Either one of two things will happen; the Malian government, with ECOWAS and the French, will try to use the opportunity to go north, but if they do this they have to do it before the next 6 weeks and the rainy season, or they will have to wait until autumn. I think they are more likely to do the former."
"Also Algeria has closed the border from the north, preventing the rebels from moving that way," therefore working in favour of an advancement by the French on the north.
'They will never leave'
A commander of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the extremist groups controlling northern Mali, taunted the French. He said that his fighters control Diabaly, as well as Konna, the first town bombed by the French last week. He told AP: "I would advise France not to sing their victory song too quickly. They managed to leave Afghanistan. They will never leave Mali."
Hours earlier, rebel fighters had responded to French airstrikes and military action with a counter-offensive in Diabaly, French and Malian authorities confirmed.
Araud said France had "no other choice" but to help the Malian government.
"We will defend [the capital] Bamako. We will not let the southern part of the country, with its 13 million inhabitants, fall to terrorist groups," said Araud.
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Francois Hollande, the French president, visited French troops stationed in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, confirming that a total of the currrent French military deployment consisted of 750 soldiers, but that number "will increase".
Also on Tuesday, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said that he believed that the presence of foreign troops in Mali would not encourage al-Qaeda recruitment, Reuters news agency reported.
Al-Qaeda-linked rebels overran the garrison village of Diabaly in central Mali, France's defence minister confirmed in Paris on Monday.
French military forces, who began battling in Mali on Friday, widened their aerial bombing campaign against the rebels occupying northern Mali, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat.
Al Jazeera's correspondent Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from the capital Bamako, said: "There are reports of about 60 fighters being killed thus far while Doctors without Borders say they are very concerned about the lives of civilians in the region."
The rebels, who come from several nations besides Mali, had been bottled up in the narrow neck of central Mali. But by now sweeping in from the west, they are now only 400km from Bamako, in southern Mali.
Before France sent its forces in on Friday, the closest known spot the rebels were to the capital was 680km away, although they might have infiltrated closer than that.
France is urging the "Africanisation" of the conflict, encouraging African nations to send troops to fight the rebels.
Besides France and the US, 11 other nations have pledged troops or logistical support. Over the weekend, Britain authorised the deployment of several C-17 transport planes to help the French military effort.
Mali's north, an area the size of France itself, was occupied by al-Qaeda-linked rebels nine months ago, following a coup in the capital.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies