BAMAKO, Mali -- Fighting erupted between Islamists and Malian soldiers in the city whose capture by militants first prompted French military intervention, while French forces kept up their bombardments of another key town, fleeing residents said Thursday.
Mali soldiers claimed to have recaptured the central town of Konna, although this could not be confirmed, while the French continued airstrikes on the Islamist-held town of Diabaly, at least 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.
Residents who escaped Diabaly said French bombs continued to hit Islamist positions there overnight but they said the town remained under the control of the radical Islamists who have advanced south after controlling northern Mali for nearly a year.
"There were bombardments last night in Diabaly and civilians have continued to come here to Niono, said Oumar Coulibaly, a resident of Niono. "This morning I saw people who came from Diabaly and the Islamists still occupy the city."
Diabaly, a town of some 35,000 people, is just 250 miles (400 kilometers) northeast of the capital of Bamako.
Meanwhile, France has increased its troops' strength in Mali to 1,400, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
"The actions of French forces, be it air forces or ground forces, are ongoing," said Le Drian in Paris on Thursday. "They took place yesterday, they took place last night, they took place today, they will take place tomorrow."
Fleeing residents have said that Islamist extremists have taken over their homes in Diabaly and were preventing other people from leaving. They said the militants were melting into the population and moving only in small groups on streets in the mud-walled neighborhoods to avoid being targeted by the French.
"They stationed themselves outside my house with a heavy weapon, I don't know what sort it was. After that came the bombing, which went on from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and after that, one of them (rebels) jumped over my garden wall to grab the keys to my car," said Thiemogo Coulibaly.
In the narrow waist of central Mali, fighting reignited in the town of Konna, which the Islamists attacked last week and seized a day before French launched its military offensive.
A Malian military official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said the fighting began Wednesday between Malian soldiers and Islamists from the group Ansar Dine.
The official claimed that Malian forces had forced the Islamists out of Konna, a claim that could not be immediately corroborated.
Abdrahmane Guirou, a nurse, said four wounded soldiers had been brought to the local hospital.