FRENCH and Malian armoured columns rolled into two towns in central Mali yesterday, after the rebels who had seized them melted into the bush to avoid air strikes.
France said the advance into Diabaly and Douentza was a success in its campaign to defeat al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters in Mali’s vast desert, where they have held sway for ten months.
“This advance by Mali’s army into towns held by their enemies is a certain military success for the government in [capital]Bamako and for French forces supporting the operations,” French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
According to the French military, neighbouring African nations now have 830 troops deployed in Mali. Prime Minister David Cameron told the Commons yesterday the UK would consider giving more logistical and surveillance assistance to the operation but would not take a combat role.
Diabaly, 220 miles north of dusty, riverside Bamako, had harboured the main cluster of insurgents south of the frontline towns of Mopti and Sevare. Douentza lies 500 miles north-east of Bamako along the main road toward the rebel stronghold of Gao.
Diabaly residents said some of the rebels had abandoned their flowing robes to blend in with the local population. The charred and twisted wreckage of their pick-up trucks with machineguns mounted on the back littered the sandy streets between the mud-brick buildings.
France has deployed 2,000 troops to Mali and its warplanes have pounded rebel columns and bases for an 11th day. Its intervention turned back an Islamist column heading towards Bamako that threatened to topple Mali’s government.
The region around Diabaly has long been a hub for al-Qaeda-linked cells believed to have camps in the Ouagadou forest near Mauritania’s border.
The French commander in the region has warned rebels may have left mines and booby traps in the recaptured towns.
France now aims, with international support, to dislodge the Islamists from Mali’s vast desert north to prevent them using it to launch attacks on the West or form lasting links with other Islamist groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram or Somalia’s al Shabaab. It plans eventually to hand over the military operation to the United Nations-sanctioned African mission.
“Our goal is to hand over to Afisma (African-led International Support Mission to Mali) as quickly as possible,” French president Francois Hollande said. “Until that happens, we shall do our duty, and our African friends understand exactly what that duty is. We know that’s going to take time.”
The Islamist alliance in Mali, grouping al-Qaeda’s North African wing Aqim and the Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and Mujwa, has imposed harsh sharia law, carrying out amputations and destroying ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.
A resident of Timbuktu said scores of pick-up trucks carrying Islamist fighters had arrived there since Saturday, as the rebels apparently pulled their forces back to their desert strongholds.
The European Union said it would host a meeting on Mali on 5 February to include the UN, African Union and Ecowas, the grouping of West African states.
The push north by the Malian army has raised the spectre of ethnic reprisals by security forces and militia groups. Human Rights Watch said it had received reports of serious abuses being committed by the Malian army against civilians in Niono.
There have also been reports of killings by Malian soldiers of lighter-skinned Arabs and Tuaregs, who are widely blamed for the rebellion.