French troops started landed in Mali Friday to take part in the Mali army’s new offensive against al Qaeda forces as they headed north. President François Hollande said France was willing to respond to the Mali government’s plea for help, warning that the Islamists were advancing on the Mali capital Bamako and that northern Mali and the wider Sahel region were becoming an Afghanistan-like base for Islamists. DEBKAfile: This sparsely populated desert country of 15 million inhabitants is under attack by Al Qaeda groups dominated by Tuareg tribesmen, who up to 2001 served Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi. After he was gone, they moved to Mali with their weapons. At least seven French hostages are currently being held by Al Qaeda in Maghreb terrorists.