BAMAKO: The Malian army, backed by French troops, on Friday wrested control of the central town of Konna from Islamists as the first West African regional forces arrived to shore up the offensive against the Al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
The retaking of the key town, about 700 kilometres (400 miles) from the capital Bamako, came amid a crisis in neighbouring Algeria where Islamists took hundreds hostage in a gas field, sparking a deadly commando raid, to avenge the French intervention in Mali.
"We have wrested total control of Konna after inflicting heavy losses on the enemy," the Malian army said in a brief statement. The claim was backed by a regional security source and local residents.
Islamist rebel groups who have controlled northern Mali since April pushed south into government-held territory and seized Konna on January 10, spurring former colonial ruler France to launch a military campaign to halt their advance.
The French forces began with air strikes under the Operation Serval campaign but rapidly extended it to a ground offensive on a triad of Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who gained control of the country's vast desert north.
France said it already has 1,400 soldiers in Mali and this will progressively be increased to 2,500 troops.
About 100 Togolese and Nigerian soldiers arrived in Mali late Thursday, the first African troops pledged by nine regional countries to boost the French-led effort.
The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has pledged to send 3,000 soldiers for the MISMA (International Mission for Support to Mali) in line with a United Nations resolution.
Chad, which is not an ECOWAS member, has also offered to send 2,000 soldiers.
The force will be headed by Nigerian General Shehu Abdulkadir and some 2,000 soldiers are expected in Mali by January 26.
West African countries will review the crisis at an emergency meeting on Mali on Saturday in Abidjan, the main city of Ivory Coast. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is due to attend.
The recapture of Konna is a significant boost for the Malian army which has struggled to drive out the rebels from there.
They had claimed to have taken it earlier but French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian then said the zone was still in the Islamists' hands. On Tuesday Aboul Habib Sidi Mohamed, a spokesman for one of the rebel groups Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), said they were still in control of the town.
The area is not accessible to independent observers.
The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said the French air and ground intervention in Mali was the only way to stop Islamists creating "a terrorist safe haven in the heart of Africa".
Further support for France, which has already won offers of logistical help from several European countries, came Friday from Italy and Poland, whose defence minister said Warsaw could send instructors to train Mali's embattled troops after European foreign ministers on Thursday agreed to accelerate the deployment of an EU training force to the country.
Italian Cooperation Minister Andrea Riccardi said the week-old French air and ground offensive was not "a colonial war" because it was "Africa that first asked for help... to stop the threat posed by Al-Qaeda."
Italy was preparing to lend support to "a United Nations operation, which we believe should have an overriding objective of stabilisation, of humanitarian assistance to the displaced and supporting the emergence of a political and civilian management of the region," he told the daily La Repubblica.