French troops block Malian town in bid to hold back Islamist fighters

Malian soldiers helped by French troops move a broken helicopter. Picture: AP
Malian soldiers helped by French troops move a broken helicopter. Picture: AP
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FRENCH troops have encircled a key Malian town to stop radical Islamists from striking closer to the capital, a French official said last night.

The move to surround Diabaly came as French and Malian authorities said they had retaken Konna, the central city that was captured by rebels prompting the French military intervention last week.

The United Nations warned that some 700,000 civilians could be displaced by the fighting in Mali, where the French-led international force is fighting to oust the rebels from power in the north.

Mali has become a focus for al-Qaeda militants seeking to establish a safe haven.

The French forces moved around Diabaly to cut off supplies to the Islamist extremists, who have held the town since Monday, said the French official. The Malian military chased the Islamists from Konna and were holding the town last night, a Malian military official said.

Telephone lines were cut off in the town, making it difficult to independently verify the claim, though the French official also confirmed the rebels no longer held Konna.

Doctors Without Borders have been trying to get to Konna since Monday, but all roads leading to the community in central Mali have been closed by the Malian military, said Malik Allaouna, director of operations for the group known as “MSF”.

“Despite our repeated requests, we are still being refused access to the Konna region,” he said. “It is essential to allow the delivery of neutral and impartial medical and humanitarian aid in the 
areas affected by the conflict.”

In Geneva, UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said that the number of displaced Malians is expected to increase dramatically in the coming months.

Those who have fled “mentioned that large amounts of money are being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian army and its supporters”, she said.