Islamists leave Malian town of Diabaly after days of French airstrikes


BAMAKO, Mali — Burned out vehicles and scattered bullets dotted the streets of a central Malian town after radical Islamists retreated following days of French airstrikes, according to video obtained today.

The Malian military announced late Saturday that the government was now controlling Diabaly, marking an important accomplishment for the French-led offensive to oust the extremists from northern and central Mali.

“People are calm since the Islamists left the city of Diabaly before it was taken by the Malian and French forces yesterday,” said Oumar Coulibaly, who lives in the nearby town of Niono.

The Associated Press obtained video filmed Saturday by a local resident, which shows people from Diabaly inspecting the fighters’ vehicles and charred weaponry destroyed by French airstrikes and Malian ground forces.

Several armored vehicles belonging to the Malian army also can be seen lying abandoned and damaged at the side of roads in Diabaly, a town of 35,000 that is home to an important military camp.

The video marks the first pictures to emerge from the area, which was taken over by al-Qaida-linked militants at the beginning of the week. The zone remains blocked off by a military cordon and journalists have not been able to access the area so far.

Also today, French forces extended their deployment northward up from the central town of Markala, reinforcing their presence in the towns of Niono and Mopti, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman.

Burkhard, speaking by telephone from Paris, said he could not confirm claims that Malian troops had recaptured Diabaly. Other French soldiers said the situation there remained murky.

“In theory, there are few or no rebels there, but that needs to be confirmed, so we will wait to see what happens in the days to come over there,” said Lt. Col. “Frederic", a French Foreign Legion spokesman in Mali. His family name wasn't provided in keeping with French operational military policy.

Residents who had fled to the nearby town of Niono and officials described how Islamists fled the town on foot after days of French airstrikes that destroyed their vehicles.

“They tried to hijack a car, but the driver didn't stop and they fired on the car and killed the driver,” said a Malian intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

As they work to root out the jihadists and secure local populations, French and Malian forces also have to contend with some villagers who have lined up behind the rebels.

“The war against the Islamists is not at all easy and there's a very small part of the population which is helping their cause,” said Col. Seydou Sogoba, the Malian force commander in the Niono region. “That is what is making the fight against them tough.”

The radical Islamists first seized control of the main towns in northern Mali nine months ago, taking advantage of a power vacuum after a military coup in the distant capital of Bamako.

West African regional neighbors talked of a military intervention to retake northern Mali for months, but it was not until the French began their offensive Jan. 11 that the Islamists faced a military threat to their grip on power.

The Islamists took Diabaly several days later — 270 miles (430 kilometers) away from the capital — as part of an alarming descent into central Mali and closer to the government seat of power in Bamako.

France, which as of Saturday had 2,000 troops in Mali and continued to ramp up, wants African forces to eventually take the lead. The French foreign minister, attending a West African summit in Ivory Coast on Saturday that focused, said such a handover could take weeks.

Neighboring countries are expected to contribute around 3,000 troops to the operation. While some initial contributions from Togo, Nigeria and Benin have arrived to help the French, concerns about the mission have delayed other neighbors from sending their promised troops so far.

A donors’ conference for the U.N.-backed Mali mission is set to take place in Ethiopia's capital on Jan. 29.