DIABALY, Mali: French and Malian armoured columns rolled into the central Mali towns of Diabaly and Douentza yesterday, days after Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels encamped there melted into the bush to avoid air strikes.
Paris called the advance a success in its campaign to oust Islamist fighters from Mali’s vast desert where they have held sway for 10 months, raising fears the area could become a launchpad for international attacks.
“This advance by Mali’s army into towns held by their enemies is a certain military success for the government in Bamako and for French forces supporting the operations,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.
Diabaly, 350km north of Mali’s dusty riverside capital Bamako, had harboured the main cluster of insurgents south of the frontline towns of Mopti and Sevare.
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 pickup trucks littered the sandy streets between mud-brick buildings.
The French commander in the region has warned of the risk of mines and booby traps in the insurgents’ wake. 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.
Douentza lies 800km northeast of Bamako. Rebels occupying it vanished after air strikes last week, residents said.
France has deployed 2,000 ground troops and its war planes pounded rebel columns and bases in Mali for an 11th day yesterday.
Its intervention turned back an Islamist column heading towards Bamako that threatened to topple Mali’s government.
France now aims, with international support, to dislodge the Islamists from Mali’s vast desert north, an area the size of Texas, before they could use it to launch attacks on the West.
The Islamist alliance, grouping
Al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM and the home-grown Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA, has imposed harsh Shariah law in northern Mali, including amputations and the destruction of ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.
France said on Sunday that French Rafale and Mirage planes had bombed Islamist camps and logistics bases around the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu and Gao, the largest city of the north. The strikes were aimed at preventing Islamist fighters launching a counter-attack.
A resident of Timbuktu told Reuters by satellite telephone yesterday that scores of pickup trucks carrying Islamist fighters had arrived there since Saturday, as the rebels apparently pulled their forces towards their desert strongholds.
The information could not be independently verified.
The stakes in Mali rose dramatically this week when Islamist gunmen cited France’s intervention as their reason for attacking a desert gas plant in neighbouring Algeria, seizing hundreds of hostages. The death toll reached at least 80 after Algerian troops stormed the complex at the weekend.
Veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility in the name of Al Qaeda for the Algeria attack, Mauritanian news website Sahara Media said on Sunday. His Mulathameen Brigade has warned it will carry out attacks on foreign interests in the region unless the fighting in Mali stops.
The European Union said it would host an international meeting on Mali on February 5. The conference, in Brussels, will involve the United Nations, African Union and ECOWAS, the regional grouping of West African states.
The push northward by the Malian army raised the spectre of ethnic reprisals by security forces and local militia groups.
Human Rights Watch warned it had received reports of serious abuses, including killings, being committed by the Malian army against civilians in Niono. REUTERS