France has continued to launch air strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali as plans to deploy African troops gathered pace on Tuesday.
Residents of the besieged town of Diabaly sought shelter inside their homes after a night of bombing aimed at dislodging the insurgents who seized the town on Monday.
Local people told journalists they had heard explosions throughout the night, coming from the direction of the garrison town's military camp.
West African defence chiefs are set to meet in Bamako on Tuesday to approve plans to speed up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops, foreseen in a UN-backed intervention plan to be led by Africans.
Speaking from a French military base in Abu Dhabi at the start of a day-long visit to the United Arab Emirates, President François Hollande said French forces in Mali had carried out further strikes overnight, "which hit their targets".
"We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air," Hollande said. "We have 750 troops deployed at the moment and that will keep increasing, so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans."
He saw the African troop deployment taking "a good week".
France has poured hundreds of troops into Mali and carried out days of air strikes since Friday in a vast desert area seized last year by an Islamist alliance, which combines al-Qaida's north-African wing, AQIM, with Mali's home-grown MUJWA and Ansar Dine rebel groups.
Paris plans to field a total 2,500 soldiers in its former colony to bolster the Malian army and work with the intervention force provided by the Ecowas grouping of west African states.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius – accompanying Hollande on a visit aimed at firming up trade relations and making progress on a possible sale of 60 Rafale fighter jets – said he was confident Gulf Arab states would also help the Mali campaign.
Fabius said there would be a meeting of donors for the Mali operation, most likely in Addis Ababa at the end of January.
He predicted the current level of the French involvement in Mali would go on for "a matter of weeks".
But a commander of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in west Africa, one of the extremist groups controlling northern Mali, taunted the French, telling Associated Press: "I would advise France not to sing their victory song too quickly. They managed to leave Afghanistan. They will never leave Mali."
Oumar Ould Hamaha said: "It's to our advantage that they send in French troops on foot. We are waiting for them. And what they should know is that every French soldier that comes into our territory should make sure to prepare his will beforehand, because he will not leave alive."
The Ecowas mission head in Bamako, Aboudou Toure Cheaka, said west African troops would be on the ground in a week. Their immediate mission would be to help stop the rebel advance, while preparations for a full intervention continued.
The original timetable for the 3,300-strong UN-sanctioned African force – backed by western logistics, money and intelligence services – did not initially foresee full deployment before September due to logistical constraints.
Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Guinea have all offered troops. But regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that even if some troops arrive in Mali soon, training will take time.
The plan is being fast-tracked following a plea for help by Mali's government after mobile columns of Islamist fighters last week threatened the central garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, with its key airport.
The French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said France's goals were to stop the Islamist rebels, to "safeguard the existence of Mali" and pave the way for the African-led military operation.
US officials said Washington was sharing information with French forces in Mali and considering providing logistics, surveillance and airlift capability.
"We have made a commitment that al-Qaida is not going to find anyplace to hide," the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, told reporters as he began a visit to Europe.
As French aircraft bombarded mobile columns of Islamist fighters, other insurgents launched a counter-attack further to the south, dislodging government forces from the town of Diabaly, 350km (220 miles) from Bamako.
French intervention has raised the risk for eight French hostages held by al-Qaida allies in the Sahara and for 30,000 French expatriates living in neighbouring, mostly Muslim states. Concerned about reprisals at home, France has tightened security at public buildings and on public transport.
The UN said an estimated 30,000 people had fled the fighting in Mali, joining more than 200,000 already displaced.