France had previously only committed to providing training and logistical support to Mali’s military. By Thursday evening, however, rumors had begun circulating on the frontlines among the various Islamist groups and the notoriously poorly armed government soldiers that French troops were already on their way or had already arrived in Sevare, which is located near a large military barracks and airport.

On Friday afternoon, SPIEGEL ONLINE observed camouflaged Transall cargo planes landing and taking off at the airport, though it was impossible to make out whether they bore French markings. Likewise, two combat helicopters set down at the airport, which has now become the last line of defense for the government forces.

The military has completely closed Sevare off to the media. But residents reached by phone on Friday morning reported having seen French special forces troops in the city. Speaking on condition of anonymity, several Malian officers confirmed the arrival of a small group of elite French soldiers, explaining that they are supposed to help the Malian army in its efforts to drive back the Islamists. One officer mentioned a handful of French soldiers primarily tasked with coordinating troop movements.