The first ground assault by French troops against Islamist rebels in Mali is well underway.

Columns of French armoured vehicles is one of many advancing north towards rebel positions from the town of Niono, 300 kilometres from the capital Bamako.

A Malian Army spokesman says French special forces are taking part in the operation.

Militant islamists took control of vast swathes of desert in Mali’s north last year.

They now also claim to be in control of three key towns in the centre of the country – Diabali, Cala and Kona.

With the northern border region near Mauretania secured by the Malian Army, the rebels may find themselves pinned down between the border and the advancing French.

Rebel fighters raise their flag on the outskirts of the town of Kona.

Commentators say French intervention has been necessary but is not sufficient. The arrival of West African troops as reinforcement is much anticipated.

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