Hollande last seen readying the white flag.

(Reuters) — Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels launched a counter-offensive Monday in central Mali after four days of air strikes by French warplanes on their strongholds in the desert north, promising to drag France into a long and brutal Afghanistan-style ground war.

France intensified its air raids Sunday using Rafale aircraft and Gazelle attack helicopters to pummel training camps at the heart of the vast area seized by rebels in April, while pouring hundreds of troops into the capital Bamako.

French planes were in action again Monday.

Paris is determined to end Islamist domination of northern Mali, which many fear could act as a launchpad for attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

Launching a counter-attack far to the southwest of recent fighting, Islamists clashed with government forces on Monday inside the town of Diabaly, just 350 km (220 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.

Residents said the rebels had entered the town from the north overnight, approaching from the porous border region with Mauritania where al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM has camps.

“They have taken Diabaly … after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television, adding that French and Malian forces were fighting to dislodge the rebels.

Residents said Islamists, shouting ‘Allahu akbar’, were battling the army inside the town.