PARIS — French troops in armored vehicles and machine gun-mounted pickups moved northward Wednesday to bolster Malian army units fighting Islamist guerrillas in the beleaguered town of Diably — a significant escalation after six days of air strikes aimed at weakening the guerilla forces.
In neighboring Algeria, a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the main group fighting in Mali, claimed responsibility for an early morning attack on a gas production facility in which a number of foreign workers were taken hostage and at least one was reported killed. News agencies in Mauritania said the group issued a statement calling the attack retaliation for Algeria’s decision to allow France to use its airspace in flying warplanes to Mali.
“Algeria’s participation in the war on t he side of France betrays the blood of the Algerian martyrs who fell in the fight against the French occupation,” the Nouakchott News Agency quoted a spokesman as saying.
The troop movements in Diably, recorded by journalists on the scene, set the stage for what seemed likely to be French troops’ first major engagement on the ground in Mali since President Francois Hollande ordered a major military intervention there six days ago. Some reports said French special forces advisers were already in the city battling alongside the Malian soldiers.
An all-out attack on the city by French ground forces would sharply raise the risk of casualties and of criticism of the operation from within France, where leaders across the political spectrum so far have expressed support. Fighting would probably have to proceed at close quarters, house-to-house, robbing the French forces of the overwhelming technological advantage they have had while their role was limited to air strikes and attempts to buck up the disorganized Malian army.
It would be a dramatic change from the 2011 Libya intervention, in which no French casualties were reported despite months of bombing and the presence on the ground of an unknown number of special forces.
In what could be a taste of things to come, former President Valery Giscard Estaing warned Hollande on Wednesday against letting the French intervention evolve into a “neo-colonialist” type of action. “France should limit itself strictly to its logistical support to African forces,” Estaing told the newspaper Le Monde.
Details of the attack on the gas facility in eastern Algeria remained murky. But news reports and statements from the guerillas and from British Petroleum, which helps operate the site, suggested that an unknown number of hostages were being held.
Armed assailants burst into the facility at In Amenas, about 800 miles southeast of Algiers, the capital, according to British Petroleum and the British Foreign Ministry. The remote facility, on the border with Libya, is jointly operated by British Petroleum, Norway’s Statoil and Sonatrach, the Algerian state oil company.
British Petroleum said a group of “unidentified armed people” attacked and occupied the facility at 5 a.m. and, as of late afternoon, were still occupying the site. The company said it had not confirmed the “identity or intention of the people occupying the site.”
-----Edward Cody, Washington Post