On 20 February the Islamist militia Mujao took the town hall in Gao, one of the three sizeable towns in Mali's north, and on latest reports (23 February) fighting continues.
There are now 4000 French troops in Mali, and 2000 soldiers from France's ally Chad, between them making a larger effective force than Mali's own army. There are also 300-odd British soldiers, and troops from other West African states. France has called for a UN force in addition.
Yet France's defence minister says that the French military intervention must now go through its "most difficult phase". After French troops came in on 11 January, the Islamist militias which seized Mali's sparsely-populated desert and semi-desert north in April-June 2012 withdrew from the towns with no or little battle, and retreated into hide-outs across the vast expanse of the north (which is about three times the land area of those parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban is strong), or over the borders.
The Islamists have felt strong enough to return to battle in Gao more than once since January. Mujao has also claimed an operation in Kidal, which is held by French troops in alliance with a secular Tuareg militia and dissident Tuareg Islamists. The Tuareg forces have refused to allow the Malian army to enter the town.
In Timbuktu, the third sizeable town, the Paris daily Libération reports a "reign of fear" by the Malian army, directed against Arab and Tuareg citizens, though mitigated by the fact that most Arabs and Tuaregs fled the town when the French and the Malian army arrived. A set of photos on the website of the Paris daily Le Monde of schools reopening in Timbuktu shows not a single Arab or Tuareg person, but only people of southern-Mali (black-African) origin, presumably mostly Songhai.
Libération on 19 February ran a big feature on the scantiness of direct journalistic coverage of northern Mali. Journalists are not formally excluded. But the Malian army stops them driving north on grounds of security, and the French authorities say they can't overrule that; the French military won't let journalists onto planes because it says that there is no space.
Journalists have not even been allowed to collect vivid stories of the horrors of the months of rule by the "narco-salafists" in the north, though there were surely many. Libération on 18 February reported on the improvised "women's prison" which the Islamists established in Timbuktu, which was crammed with women arbitrarily jailed for a flaw in Islamic dress, for smoking cigarettes, or for wearing make-up.
Whether deliberately (to restore its authority in the region) or by way of being sucked in, the French military has put itself in the position of being arbiter of Mali's future, brokers and enforcers of some compromise deal between secular Tuaregs fighting for northern autonomy, Islamists, and the Malian army, which is the ruling power in the densely-populated south. The French intervention, which was seen by most people in Mali as a help and a liberation from the Islamists, is on rails liable to establish it as a neo-colonial enterprise.