Last updated: February 20. 2013 2:19AM - 224 Views

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BAMAKO, Mali — After a punishing bombing campaign failed to stop the southward advance of al-Qaida-linked fighters, France announced Tuesday that it is tripling the number of troops deployed to Mali, strongly suggesting that French forces are preparing for a land assault to dislodge the extremists. The move reverses months of rhetoric in which France had said it would provide aerial and logistical support for a military intervention, but insisted it would need to be led by African troops.

Last week, France plunged headfirst into the conflict, authorizing air strikes after the extremists launched an aggressive push southward. Despite pounding the north of this landlocked country with 550-pound bombs for the past five days, the rebels have extended their reach, taking over a town and its strategically important military camp Monday in the central Malian town of Diabaly.

A French Defense Ministry official, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said that France was increasing the number of soldiers in Mali from 800 to 2,500.

The military chiefs of the nation's neighboring countries met in Bamako on Tuesday, but none of the thousands of troops pledged by these countries has yet arrived in Mali, and it has become increasingly apparent that France will be leading the attack and not playing a supporting role.

Supplies for the French forces continued to arrive in a steady stream Tuesday, part of the enormous logistics operation needed to support thousands of troops in the baking Sahara sun, a terrain the Islamists have operated in for nearly a decade.

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