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Associated Press
French troops stand guard along the road leading from Markala to Niono, in Markala, approximately 40 km outside Segou, in central Mali, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. French troops pressed northward in Mali toward territory occupied by radical Islamists on Wednesday, military officials said, announcing the start of a land assault that will put soldiers in direct combat "within hours." Residents of Niono, a city in the center of Mali which is just south of a town that was overrun by the jihadists earlier this week, said they saw trucks of French soldiers arrive overnight. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore)
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BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The first troops from Mali's neighbors were expected Thursday, nearly a week after French forces launched their military operation to dislodge al-Qaida-linked militants from a harsh desert region the same size as France.

Aboudou Toure Cheaka, special representative for the president of the ECOWAS commission, said that the troops from Nigeria would be arriving sometime Thursday. Forces from Niger also are to be deployed soon along the border between Mali and Niger, he said.

The arrival of the West Africans comes after France began ground operations and pressed north into territory occupied by the radical Islamists.

France already has upwards of 800 troops in Mali, and expects to ramp up to a total of 2,500 that will include French Foreign Legionnaires. It has committed helicopter gunships, fighter jets, surveillance planes and refueling tankers in the fight against the Islamists who seized control of northern Mali last year.

Armored vehicles loaded with French troops were seen Wednesday heading toward Niono, a town 340 kilometers (210 miles) northeast of the capital, Bamako. Some 70 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of Niono lies Diabaly, with a population of 35,000.

Fleeing residents said that Islamist extremists had taken over their homes in Diabaly and were preventing other people from leaving. They said the militants were melting into the population and moving only in small groups on streets in the mud-walled neighborhoods to avoid being targeted by the French.

"No one approaches them. Everyone is afraid," said Ibrahim Komnotogo, who was out of town when the militants seized Diabaly over the weekend but kept in contact by telephone with other residents.

In apparent retaliation for the French offensive, the same group controlling northern Mali occupied a natural gas complex in neighboring Algeria, taking dozens of people hostage, including Americans. Two foreigners were killed.

A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies with the majority of its 15 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed in April 2012, when Islamist extremists took over the main cities in the country's north amid disarray following a military coup, and began enforcing their version of strict Shariah law.

Security experts warn that the extremists are carving out their own territory in northern Mali from where they can plot terror attacks in Africa and Europe. Estimates of how many fighters the Islamists have range from less than 1,000 to several thousand. The militants are well-armed and funded and include recruits from other countries.

Despite training from U.S. and other Western advisers, the Mali army has been ineffective in fighting the militants. Last December, the U.N. Security Council passed a cautious resolution, outlining steps that needed to be taken before an international military intervention, one which diplomats said would not occur before at least September.

But last week, French President Francois Hollande authorized airstrikes in Mali to stop a sudden southward push by three Islamist rebel groups, including Hamaha's. The Islamists warned that France had "opened the doors of hell" and that all French nationals would pay, as would any country that helped the military intervention.

France's allies have offered vocal support for the country's military operation in Mali, but when it comes to sending troops or weapons, they are agreeing to the bare minimum: a transport plane here and there, a handful of support staff and a lot of promises to think about it.

American officials say they are providing intelligence to its European ally and are considering deploying American aircraft to land in Mali for airlift or logistical support. The U.S. is offering possible surveillance drones, too, but won't entertain notions of sending American troops to keep terrorists from carving out a safe haven like they did in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"We share the same goals as the French and of the states in the region. We support what the French are attempting to do," said Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, speaking Wednesday at the Wilson Center in Washington.

___ Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

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