NIONO, Mali (AP) - About 200 French infantrymen supported by six combat helicopters and reconnaissance planes advanced Monday toward the town of Diabaly, seized one week ago by Islamic extremists including fighters under the command of the mastermind of Algeria's recent terror attack.
Diabaly, a small bucolic town in central Mali, has become the scene of the first major battle in the war to retake northern Mali from bearded fighters who have occupied the region for nine months.
"The operation in Diabaly is currently ongoing," said Capt. Romain, the deputy in charge of France's 21st Marine Infantry regiment, positioned in the town of Markala about 85 miles (140 kilometers) from the front line.
"We don't know what we will find there," he said of Diabaly, giving only his first name in keeping with French military policy.
On the road to Diabaly, there were scenes that indicated the area is returning to normal life. Women washed children in an irrigation canal, others washed clothes and placed them to dry on the banks. Families with suitcases and bags headed north in donkey-drawn carts, apparently returning home after fleeing the conflict.
The French military used fighter planes and helicopter gunships to carry out a dozen operations over the weekend in Mali.
France said it had targeted "terrorist vehicles" in six of the strikes over the last 24 hours, and that the campaign against the militants was making progress.
In an interview with France-5 TV, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he wasn't aware of any civilian casualties.
He said the air strikes had caused "significant" - though unspecified - losses among the jihadists, and only minor skirmishes involved French forces on the ground.
Also Sunday, the extremist group behind the deadly hostage crisis in Algeria threatened more attacks against foreign targets if France does not bring an immediate halt to its military operation in Mali.
In a statement, the Masked Brigade warned of more such attacks against any country backing France's military intervention in Mali.
"We promise all the countries that participated in the Crusader campaign ... that we will carry out more operations if they do not reverse their decision," it said, according to a transcript released by SITE Intelligence Group.
France began its military offensive in Mali on Jan. 11, and has said that African nations must take the lead though it could be some weeks before they are ready to do so.
On Sunday, France said that some 400 troops from Nigeria, Togo and Benin had arrived Sunday in Bamako to help train an African force for Mali. Troops from Chad, who are considered hardened fighters familiar with the desert-like terrain of northern Mali, also have arrived, Le Drian said.
A top official with the West African regional bloc said Sunday the cost of the African intervention could top $500 million.
ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, who gave an interview to state television in Ivory Coast, said the initial estimate "may vary depending on the needs" of the mission and the situation on the ground.
About 100 American trainers also have been deployed to Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo and Ghana "to discuss training and equipping and deployment needs of those countries in the interest of getting them ready to go into Mali," said United States State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Segou, Mali; Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal; and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.
Copyright Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.