By Rukmini Callimachi and Baba Ahmed Associated Press
DIABALY, Mali — French troops in armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets of Diabaly on Monday, winning praise from residents of this besieged town after Malian forces retook control of it with French help a week after radical Islamists invaded.
The Islamists also have deserted the town of Douentza, which they had held since September, according to a local official who said French and Malian forces arrived there on Monday as well.
The militants’ occupation of Diabaly marked their deepest encroachment into government-held territory, and Monday’s retaking of the town is a significant victory for the French-led intervention.
Diabaly, located about 320 miles (460 kilometers) north of Bamako, the capital, fell into rebel hands on Jan. 14. Residents said those who fled in the aftermath were forced to escape on foot through rice fields.
“We are truly really grateful to the French who came in the nick of time,” said Gaoussou Kone, 34, the head of a local youth association. “Without the French, not only would there no longer be a Diabaly, there would soon no longer be a Mali. These people wanted to go all the way to Bamako.”
On Monday, all that remained of the Islamists were the charred shells of their vehicles destroyed by the French air strikes. Three of them were clustered in one location, the machine gun cannon of one still pointing skyward.
The cluster of rebel vehicles was directly in front of the home of an elderly man, Adama Nantoume, who said the French bombs started falling at around 11 p.m. the same day that the Islamists occupied Diabaly.
“I was at home, sitting like this against the wall,” he said, showing how he had hugged his knees to his chest in a fetal position. “The plane came and the bombs started to fall. After that, I saw that the cars had caught on fire. And the explosions were so loud that for a while I thought I had gone deaf. I was suffocated by the smoke and the light burned my eyes. The gas made me cry.”
Islamists had seized Diabaly just days after the French began their military operation on Jan. 11. The offensive is aimed at stopping the radical Islamists from encroaching toward the capital in Mali’s south from their strongholds in the vast, desert north where they have been amputating the hands of thieves and forcing women to wear veils for the last nine months.
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi — who hails from his country’s oldest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood — opposed France’s military intervention in Mali. Speaking at the opening of an Arab economic summit in Saudi Arabia, he said France’s actions would create a “new conflict hotspot” separating the Arab north of Mali from its African neighbors to the south. He said he would have preferred to see a “peaceful and developmental” intervention.
On Monday, about 200 French infantrymen supported by six combat helicopters and reconnaissance planes made their way to Diabaly. Associated Press reporters saw French troops in camouflage uniforms take up positions in front of a Malian military camp in the town.
“With the help of the French troops it’s reassuring, but we must search, and search some more. There may still be a few pockets of enemy resistance,” said a Malian army commander who gave only his last name, Samassa.
Some of the Islamist fighters may have remained behind, portraying themselves as local civilians. Malian soldiers on Diabaly’s outskirts set up a roadblock south of the town where they checked the identity papers of travelers.
Farther north in Douentza, local town adviser Sali Maiga told The Associated Press that French and Malian forces came into the town around 11 a.m. local time to find no sign of the Islamist rebels.
The militants, who captured Douentza back in September, had deserted the town last week, Maiga said.
In an interview with France-5 TV, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the air strikes in Mali had caused “significant” — though unspecified — losses among the jihadists, and only minor skirmishes involved French forces on the ground.
Meanwhile, the extremist group behind the deadly hostage crisis in Algeria threatened more attacks against foreign targets if France does not bring an immediate halt to its military operation in Mali. In a statement, the Masked Brigade warned of more such attacks against any country backing France’s military intervention in Mali.
“We promise all the countries that participated in the Crusader campaign … that we will carry out more operations if they do not reverse their decision,” it said, according to a transcript released by SITE Intelligence Group.
France has said that African nations must take the lead, though it could be some weeks before they are ready to do so.
France has said that some 400 troops from Nigeria, Togo and Benin had arrived Sunday in Bamako to help train an African force for Mali. Troops from Chad, who are considered hardened fighters familiar with the desert-like terrain of northern Mali, also have arrived, Le Drian said.
A top official with the West African regional bloc said Sunday the cost of the African intervention could top $500 million.
ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, who gave an interview to state television in Ivory Coast, said the initial estimate “may vary depending on the needs” of the mission and the situation on the ground.