The French national being evacuated from Segou said the email she received from the French Embassy indicated that small groups of rebel fighters were already heading to Segou, a drive that normally takes two to three hours.
Mali’s north, an area the size of France, was occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels last April following a coup in the capital. The international community has debated what to do, with most foreign powers backing a U.N. Security Council resolution in December that called for training the Malian armed forces before any military intervention was launched. Diplomats said no intervention could happen before September.
All that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south, one on the mostly east-west axis of Douentza to the garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, and a second heading from a locality north of Diabaly toward Segou.
If either Segou or Mopti were to fall, many feared the Islamists could advance toward the capital.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the airstrikes, which began Friday, initially concentrated in the north. France has sent in Mirage jets stationed in Chad that can carry 550-pound (250-kilogram) bombs.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday that the United States has ‘‘a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are,’’ including in Mali, adding that the U.S. is already providing intelligence-gathering assistance to the French in their assault on Islamist extremists.
Besides France and the U.S., 11 other nations have pledged troops or logistical support. Britain over the weekend authorized sending several C-17 transport planes to help France bring more troops.
‘‘Not a half hour goes by when we don’t see a French plane either taking off or landing,’’ said Napo Bah, a hotel worker in Sevare, the central town that is a launch pad for the operation. ‘‘It’s been a constant since last week, when they authorized the military operation.’’
At least 30,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since the insurgents began moving south last week, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
AP writers Greg Keller and Jamey Keaten in Paris, and Lolita C. Baldor aboard a U.S. military aircraft, contributed to this report.