French troops in armoured vehicles are advancing towards a central Malian town abandoned by Islamist rebels after days of air strikes, moving cautiously for fear of guerrilla-style counterattacks by the al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
Television images yesterday showed the wreckage of the Islamists’ white pick-up trucks, some mounted with heavy machine guns, lying charred and twisted among the mud-brick buildings of the village of Diabaly.
Commanders of French and Malian forces, who have set up their operations centre in the nearby town of Niono, some 190 miles north-east of the capital Bamako, said the whereabouts of the Islamist fighters remained unclear.
“Our principal concern is that a section of the population may have joined the jihadists,” said Colonel Seydou Sogoba, head of Malian military operations in the area. “The war against the Islamists is not an easy one. They come in and mix with the local population.”
Some Islamist fighters had shaved off their beards and swapped their robes for jeans to blend in with local residents, he said.
France has deployed 2,000 ground troops and its war planes have pounded rebel columns and bases for ten days, effectively halting an Islamist advance on the riverside capital. French combat aircraft were last night reported to be hitting targets further north, in the Gao and Timbuktu regions.
French intervention was aimed at stopping the loose coalition of Muslim militants from using Mali’s north as a training ground and springboard for attacks in Africa and on the West.
The Islamist alliance, grouping al-Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM and home-grown Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA, has imposed harsh sharia law in northern Mali, including amputations and the destruction of ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.
In Niono, more than two dozen French military vehicles stood yesterday in a dusty field outside the headquarters of the regional prefect. Some soldiers cleaned their guns and chatted next to their armoured personnel carriers. Others bought mobile phones, bread and other necessities from a local shop as they prepared for their next move forward.
In Paris, foreign minister Laurent Fabius brushed off suggestions that France risked becoming embroiled in a guerrilla war. Islamist fighters have pledged to turn Mali into a new Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan, there was no democratic regime. Here, there’s a democratic regime even if it needs to be perfected,” he told a news conference. “The common point is, it’s a battle against terrorism.”
At a meeting with ECOWAS heads of state in Ivory Coast on Saturday, Mr Fabius appealed for international help to fund a UN mandated African mission to oust the Islamists from the region. A donors conference will be held on 29 January.