May 24, 2013
French troops take central Mali towns, rebels slip away
French and Malian armoured columns rolled into the towns of Diabaly and Douentza in central Mali today after the al Qaeda-linked rebels who had seized them fled into the bush to avoid air strikes.
France said the advance was a significant step in its campaign to break Islamist fighters' grip over Mali's vast desert north, a presence raising fears of the region becoming a an African launchpad for international militant attacks.
The stakes in Mali rose dramatically last week when Islamist gunmen cited France's intervention as the reason for attacking a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria, seizing hundreds of hostages and sowing fears the conflict would spill across borders.
"This advance by Mali's army into towns held by their enemies is a clear military success for the government in Bamako and for French forces supporting the operation," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
France, which has made 140 bombing sorties since Jan. 11, plans eventually to hand over the military operation to a U.N.-sanctioned African mission - although that deployment has been hampered by a lack of supplies, funds and training.
Diabaly, 350 km (220 miles) north of Mali's dusty riverside capital Bamako, had harboured the main cluster of insurgents south of the frontline towns of Mopti and Sevare.
Douentza, some 800 km from Bamako along the eastern road to the rebel stronghold of Gao, was a staging post in the rebels' southward advance two weeks ago that prompted France to intervene for fear they would capture the Malian capital.
In Diabaly, the dusty streets were now littered with the charred wreckage of eight rebel pick-up trucks. Residents said 200 Islamist fighters had held them captive for three days as human shields against French air strikes.
"There were 12 of us in the house, with no food or water," said 18-year-old Seydou Diarra. "They stopped us from leaving the village. They told us we'll die together and those who insisted on leaving were unbelievers."
Malian soldiers proudly displayed some 80 boxes of machine gun ammunition left behind by the fleeing rebels. Life gradually returned to the town's main street as shops reopened and children played on the parade ground where French and Malian troops parked their armoured personnel carriers.
France has sent 2,150 ground troops to Mali and deployed jet fighters and attack helicopters that hammered rebel bases for an 11th day on Monday, as it awaited troops from nearby African nations, pouring into Bamako, to deploy to the front line.
Some 1,000 African troops from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the central African nation of Chad have arrived, and that number is expected to top 5,000 in the coming weeks.
Military experts say the swift and effective deployment of African forces is crucial to sustain the momentum of France's air campaign and prevent Islamists from melting away into the empty desert or the rugged mountains near the Algerian border.