BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, including a strategic military camp, bringing them much closer to the capital, French and Malian military officials said.
After cutting off a key road, the al-Qaida-linked extremists overran the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the region of Segou, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety.
The French military, which began battling the extremists in northern Mali on Friday, expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat. But the intense assault, including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who were only 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the capital, Bamako, in the far south.
The rebels "took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn't hold them back," Le Drian said.
The Malian military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency began almost a year ago in the West African nation. The fighters control the north, but had been blocked in the narrow central part of the landlocked nation.
They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces.
Mauritania lies to the northwest of Mali and its armed forces have been put on high alert. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso has sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks. Even Algeria, which had earlier argued against a military intervention, is now helping France by opening its air space to French Rafale jets.
Many of Mali's neighbors, who had been pushing for a military intervention to flush out the jihadists, had argued that airstrikes by sophisticated Western aircraft would be no match for the mixture of rebel groups occupying northern Mali. Leaders of ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, stressed that the north of Mali is mostly desert, and that it would be easy to pick off the convoys of rebel vehicles from the air since there is almost no ground cover.
Monday's surprise assault and the downing of a French combat helicopter by rebel fire last Friday have given many pause. Just hours before Diabaly fell, a commander at the military post in Niono, the town immediately to the south, laughed on the phone, and confidently asserted that the Islamists would never take Niono.
By afternoon, the commander, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, sounded almost desperate. "We feel truly threatened," he said.
He said the rebels approached Diabaly from the east, infiltrating the rice-growing region of Alatona, which until recently was the site of a large, U.S.-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation project.
French aircraft bombed a rebel convoy 25 miles (40 kilometers)) from Diabaly late Sunday night, the commander said. "This morning we woke up and realized that the enemy was still there. They cut off the road to Diabaly. We are truly surprised -- astonished," he said.
It was unclear what happened to the Malian troops based at the military camp in Diabaly. The commander said that since the Islamists seized the town, he had not been able to reach any of the officers at the base.
French forces stationed in the neighboring nation of Ivory Coast were traveling to Mali, said a spokeswoman for the Licorne Force in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital. An adviser to the president of Ivory Coast, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the troops will join the 550 French forces already in Mali, and will head directly to Segou, and beyond to Diabaly. "They will encircle the rebels," he said.
However, the French national who was being evacuated from Segou said the email she received from the French Embassy indicated that small groups of rebel fighters were already heading to Segou, a drive that normally takes two to three hours.
The Islamists in northern Mali have long said that if France attacked them, they would strike back at French interests all over Africa and beyond.
On Monday, the commander of one of the al-Qaida offshoots in northern Mali dared the French to keep attacking them.
"France has opened the gates of hell. ... It has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia," declared Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the jihadist groups controlling the north, speaking on French radio Europe 1.
Mali's north, an area the size of France, was occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels last April following a coup in the capital. For nearly as long, the international community has debated what to do. In December, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution calling for military intervention, but only after an exhaustive list of pre-emptive measures were fulfilled, starting with training the Malian military, a process diplomats said would last until at least September.
All that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south, one on the mostly east-west axis of Douentza to the garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, and a second heading from a locality north of Diabaly toward Segou.
If either Segou or Mopti were to fall, many feared the Islamists could advance toward the capital.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the airstrikes, which began Friday, initially concentrated in the north. France has sent in Mirage jets stationed in Chad that can carry 550-pound (250-kilogram) bombs. They are also using Gazelle helicopter gunships and the Rafale jet, based in France.
Britain over the weekend authorized sending several C-17 transport planes to help France bring more troops. The United States is sending drones, as well as communications and logistical support.
"Not a half hour goes by when we don't see a French plane either taking off or landing," said Napo Bah, a hotel worker in Sevare, the central town that is a launch pad for the operation. "It's been a constant since last week, when they authorized the military operation."
AP writer Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.