French troops pressed northward in Mali territory occupied by radical Islamists today, launching a land assault which will put soldiers in direct combat "in 1 to 72 hours," military officials said.

A trickle of refugees left on foot from Diabaly, a town seized two days ago by the jihadists who have held onto it despite a punishing bombing campaign by French fighter jets. The refugees arrived in Niono town, 70 kilometres, according to residents.

French ground operations began overnight, France's military chief of staff Adm. Edouard Guillaud, said on Europe 1 television Wednesday (local time). He stressed that French infantry units "will be fighting directly in coming hours, but I am unable to say whether it is in one hour or in 72 hours. ... Of course, we will be fighting directly."