By Bate Felix and Alexandria Sage
BAMAKO/PARIS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels launched a counter-offensive on Monday in central Mali after four days of air strikes by French warplanes on their strongholds in the desert north, promising to drag France into a long and brutal Afghanistan-style ground war.
France intensified its air raids on Sunday using Rafale aircraft and Gazelle attack helicopters to pummel training camps at the heart of the vast area seized by rebels in April, while pouring hundreds of troops into the capital Bamako.
French planes were in action again on Monday.
Paris is determined to end Islamist domination of northern Mali, which many fear could act as a launchpad for attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
Launching a counter-attack far to the southwest of recent fighting, Islamists clashed with government forces on Monday inside the town of Diabaly, just 350 km (220 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.
Residents said the rebels had entered the town from the north overnight, approaching from the porous border region with Mauritania where al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM has camps.
"They have taken Diabaly ... after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television, adding that French and Malian forces were fighting to dislodge the rebels.
Residents said Islamists, shouting 'Allahu akbar', were battling the army inside the town.
A spokesman for the MUJWA Islamist group, one of the main factions in the rebel alliance, promised French citizens would pay for Sunday's air strikes in their stronghold of Gao. Dozens of Islamist fighters were killed when rockets struck a fuel depot and a customs house being used as their headquarters.
"They should attack on the ground if they are men. We'll welcome them with open arms," Oumar Ould Hamaha told Europe 1 radio. "France has opened the gates of hell for all the French. She has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."
France has said its sudden intervention on Friday, after Mali's president appealed for urgent aid in the face of a rebel advance, stopped the Islamists from seizing the capital Bamako. It has pledged to press on with air strikes in the coming days.
President Francois Hollande says France's aim is simply to support a mission by the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS to retake the north, as mandated by a U.N. Security Council resolution in December.
Under pressure from Paris, several regional states have said they hope to have soldiers on the ground this week. Military chiefs from ECOWAS nations will meet in Bamako on Tuesday but regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that training and deploying troops will take time.
DOUBTS OVER ECOWAS DEPLOYMENT
More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy, but that image unraveled in a matter of weeks after a military coup in March which left a power vacuum for the Islamist rebellion.
France, which has repeatedly said it has abandoned its role as the policeman of its former African colonies, convened a U.N. Security Council meeting for Monday to discuss Mali.
Hollande's intervention has won plaudits from Western leaders but raises the threat level for eight French hostages held by al Qaeda allies in the Sahara and for the 30,000 French expatriates living in neighboring, mostly Muslim states.
Concerned about reprisals at home, France has tightened security at public buildings and on public transport.
In its first casualty of the campaign, Paris said a French pilot was killed on Friday when rebels shot at his helicopter.
Hours earlier, a French intelligence officer held hostage in Somalia by al Shabaab militants linked to al Qaeda was killed in a failed commando raid to free him.
Military analysts warn that if French action was not followed up by a robust deployment of ECOWAS forces, with logistical and financial support from NATO, then the whole U.N.-mandated Mali mission was unlikely to succeed.
"The French action was an ad-hoc measure. It's going to be a mess for a while, it depends on how quickly everyone can come on board," said Hussein Solomon, a professor in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, South Africa.
He voiced grave doubts about the prospects of a properly equipped and trained ECOWAS force deploying effectively in a ground operation to follow up French air strikes.
"This is just playing for time ... It's imperative that other NATO countries get involved," he said. "Everybody talks about the threat of global terrorism, but then where is the global response?"
Officials in Washington has said the United States would share intelligence with France and was considering sending a small number of unarmed surveillance drones. Britain and Canada have also promised logistical support.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra, Tiemoko Diallo and Rainer Schwenzfeier in Bamako, Catherine Bremer and John Irish in Paris, Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Richard Valdmanis)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp