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Mali Islamists gain ground despite strikes

Insurgents warn France ‘opened the gates of hell’

PARIS — Despite intensive airstrikes by French warplanes, Islamist fighters overran a strategic village and military post in central Mali on Monday, offering an indication that the war against extremists who have carved out a jihadist state in the nation’s north could be a long and difficult one.

Just hours after the French foreign minister said confidently that France had blocked ‘‘the advance of the terrorists,’’ accomplishing its first mission in the conflict, the French defense minister acknowledged that the facts on the ground were different. A column of militants had pushed to within about 50 miles of one of Mali’s largest cities, forcing France to evacuate its citizens in the area and bringing the Islamists a step closer to the capital — closer than they had been before French forces entered the fight.

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Having entered the war quickly after an urgent plea from the Malian government, France now finds itself facing a well-equipped force of Islamist fighters — with little immediate help from its allies to overcome them.

The Obama administration has pledged to help the French in their fight against the militants but offered no concrete measures. On Monday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said assistance could include air and other logistical support, but Defense Department officials said no decisions had been made on whether to help with midflight refueling planes.

American spy planes and surveillance drones are in the meantime trying to get a sense of the chaos on the ground.

Panetta said that even though Mali was far from the United States, the Obama administration was deeply worried about extremist groups there, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

‘‘While they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately still remains their objective,’’ he said.

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Britain has said it would help transport foreign troops and equipment to Mali, though it would not send its own soldiers.

West African nations have promised 3,300 soldiers to fight alongside the Malian army, but they must be gathered, transported, trained, and financed, and there have long been concerns about their readiness.

The European Union has promised 250 military trainers to aid the Malian army, but it has yet to deploy them.

Moreover, the French mission is an ambitious one. Beyond pledging to stop the Islamists from pushing deeper into Mali, France has also vowed to help restore Mali’s territorial integrity.

“None of the conditions for success have been met,’’ Dominique de Villepin, a former French prime minister, warned Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche. ‘‘Stopping the jihadists advance south, retaking the north, eradicating [terrorist] bases — these are all different wars.’’

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister, said the French forces had driven the Islamists out of one village, Kona, but that another column of Islamists had overrun the Malian army in the village of Diabaly on the western side of the Niger River, a loss Malian officials confirmed.

For now, the French are fighting from the air in support of Malian troops, while also making airstrikes on northern extremist camps and strongholds deep inside Islamist-held territory, such as Gao.

France ‘‘has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,’’ Oumar Ould Hamaha, an insurgent leader, told Europe 1 radio.

Stirring longstanding fears that the far-flung military operation in Mali could inspire vengeance as far away as Europe, he warned that the intervention had ‘‘opened the gates of hell for all the French.’’

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