BAMAKO, Jan. 16 (Xinhua) -- Clash erupted between Al-Qaida- linked rebels and the Malian and French ground troops in Diabaly, 400 km from the capital Bamako, after they were surrounded, a security source told Xinhua on Wednesday.
Al-Qaida's North African branch AQIM briefly seized Diabaly on Monday in a counter-attack launched from the west along the Mali- Mauritania border.
AQIM fighters fled out of town to surrounding areas after an overnight airstrike by the French army.
The ground battle in Diabaly marked a shift of days of air raids to land operations between rebels and Mali's allies including France and the West African bloc ECOWAS.
Between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, about 200 French soldiers headed towards Diabaly in their first ground operation since Paris declared intervention on Friday, Mali's security source said.
The ground operation, which came after many rebels were reportedly killed and injured in airstrikes, might be difficult as "some of the terrorist and Islamist fighters had mixed with the Diabaly population while others had fled the town," the source indicated.
Eyewitnesses told Xinhua that local residents including women and children had fled the town of Diabaly, which is near the Mauritanian border, heading towards southern Mali controlled by the government.
Rebels are facing increasing pressure given the latest developments in Mauritania. French President Francois Hollande has called for more action from his Mauritanian counterpart.
Mauritania has reportedly stepped up border patrols, making it difficult for the survival of not only AQIM, but its allies MUJAO and Ansar Dine in the region.
Meanwhile, residents of the major towns in northern Mali have told Xinhua that rebels are rarely seen after days of bombing by the French air force.
"Many of the Islamists have left the town, however, I saw a few of them in the market on Tuesday," a resident of Timbuktu told Xinhua on phone.
Members of the 15-nation bloc ECOWAS have been meeting in Bamako for an extraordinary forum since Tuesday to discuss an urgent deployment of the International Support Mission for Mali (MISMA).
Troops from ECOWAS member states Senegal, Niger, Ghana, Nigeria and Guinea are expected to arrive in Mali soon.
French intervention to stop rebels advancing south prompted an early than expected deployment of MISMA, which was approved by the UN Security Council in December 2012 after submitted by ECOWAS.
The bloc plans to help member state Mali to restore constitutional rule and territorial integrity after rebels took advantage of a military coup on March 22, 2012 to occupy northern part of the country. But the plan was initially considered impossible until September 2013 because of preparations ranging from training to logistics.