May 25, 2013
Mali army retakes town, Islamists flee French air raids
Islamist rebels in Mali abandoned the central town of Diabaly today after fleeing a French air strike, military sources said, while West African troops arrived in Bamako to take on the insurgents in Mali's north.
France, warning that Islamist control over Mali's vast deserts and rugged mountains threatened the security of Africa and the West, had targeted Diabaly in an eighth day of air strikes to dislodge hardened al Qaeda-linked fighters there.
"They (the Islamists) fled the town, dressed as civilians, early this morning. They abandoned their weapons and ammunition," a Malian military source said.
The source said government soldiers had not yet entered the town but Diabaly Mayor Oumar Diakite said that troops were there carrying out mopping-up operations after a French air strike earlier in the day.
Diakite said residents had dug up some of the Islamist fighters' weapons caches. "There are lots of burned-out vehicles that the Islamists tried to hide in the orchards," he added.
A commander in the Malian army in nearby Markala said ground forces were operating around Diabaly, which lies about 360 km (220 miles) northeast of Bamako, but could not confirm that the town, seized by Islamists on Monday, had been recaptured.
French armed forces spokesman Thierry Burkhard said he was not aware of any operation in the area.
If officially confirmed, it would be a second military success for the French-led military alliance after Islamists on Thursday night abandoned Konna, to the north of the central garrison town of Sevare.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has appealed for access to Konna but said it has so far been refused despite days of talks with all armed forces.
Bolstered with weapons seized from Libya after the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the Islamist alliance of al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM and home-grown Malian groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA has put up staunch resistance.
The progress of French and Malian troops has been slowed also because insurgents had taken refuge in the homes of civilians, residents said.
The military operation is expected to force hundreds of thousands more people from their homes, on top of the 400,000 that have fled since a rebellion erupted last year.
French President Francois Hollande ordered the intervention on the grounds that the Islamists could turn northern Mali into a "terrorist state" radiating threats beyond its borders.
Residents in Markala, where the French have set up the forward base at an army camp overlooking the Niger River, said they were relieved to see French soldiers.
"The past few days have been very stressful before the arrival of the French troops," said Mohamud Sangare, who runs a hardware store in the centre of the town.
Despite threats from militants to attack French interests around the world, France, which now has 1,800 troops on the ground in Mali, has pledged to keep them there until stability returns to the poor, landlocked West African nation
In the first apparent retaliatory attack, al Qaeda-associated militants took dozens of foreigners hostage on Wednesday at a natural gas plant in Algeria, blaming Algerian cooperation with France.
Algerian security sources said that about 20 foreigners were still being held on Friday at the facility where some 30 hostages, along with at least 18 of their captors, were killed during a storming of the complex by Algerian armed forces on Thursday.