French, Malian troops recapture key towns from Islamists
French and Malian troops recaptured the key towns of Diabaly and Douentza on Monday in a major boost in their drive to rout Al Qaeda-linked rebels holding Mali's vast arid north.
The inroads are a significant advance in the 11-day offensive led by former colonial power France, whose aim is the "total reconquest" of the strategically important but sparsely populated north of Mali.
The French defence ministry said "Malian troops backed by French soldiers" retook the two towns in a "definite military victory" for the forces.
A convoy of about 30 armoured vehicles with some 200 Malian and French troops moved into Diabaly, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital Bamako early Monday, meeting no resistance.
Local residents emerged from their shacks applauding wildly. Some shouted "Long Live France!" as the troops rolled in and others scrambled to photograph the "liberators" on their cellphones.
Fatumata Damele, who fled the town after the Islamist takeover but returned on Sunday, said: "I have been praying for the success of the French mission."
But French military officials and local residents both said the fleeing Islamists had riddled the town with landmines.
Lieutenant-Colonel Frederic, in charge of the operations in Diabaly who identified himself by only his Christian name in line with French army policy, said: "There is a problem with unexploded ammunition."
He said the French soldiers would hand charge of the town to the Malian troops later Monday.
Diabaly has been the theatre of air strikes and fighting since it was seized by Islamists a week ago. French television footage from the town has shown charred pick-up trucks abandoned by the Islamists amid mud-brick homes.
Douentza, which was taken by the Islamists in September, is a crossroads town on the way to the rebel bastions of Gao, Kidal, and the fabled city of Timbuktu. It is about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the town of Konna, whose capture earlier this month by extremists sparked the French intervention.
The French offensive, backed by embattled Malian troops, forged ahead despite threats of further retaliation from jihadists after a stunning hostage attack at a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria resulted in scores of deaths.
Among those killed were 37 foreigners of eight different nationalities, the Algerian prime minister said Monday.
The Mali offensive has sent several hundred thousand people fleeing combat zones, many of them to neighbouring countries, raising fears about their plight.
As news of the advances came through, the European Union offered to host a global meeting on Mali in Brussels on February 5, involving the EU, the African Union and the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States.
The EU aims to send about 500 military trainers to Mali by mid-February.
France swept to the aid of the crippled and weak Malian army on January 11, a day after the hardline Islamists made a push towards Bamako in the government-held southern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
It won backing for its action from the UN Security Council last week.
A UN-approved African-led intervention force known as AFISMA is currently being set up but needs up to 200 million euros ($265 million).
The crisis first erupted when the nomadic Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalised by government, launched a rebellion a year ago and inflicted such humiliation on the Malian army that it triggered a military coup in Bamako in March.
In the ensuing political vacuum, the central government lost control of the north to the insurgents, and the Tuaregs were instrumental in helping a triad of Islamist rebel groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seize control of huge swathes of territory.
But the Tuaregs' alliance of convenience with the Islamists quickly disintegrated. AQIM and other Islamists began to run territories under their control like a particularly brutal medieval emirate and imposed a harsh form of sharia law.
Meanwhile the planned deployment of around 6,000 African soldiers continued slowly into Bamako, hampered by cash and logistical constraints.
Only 150 African troops have arrived but a first contingent of 150 Burkina Faso troops left for Mali on Monday.
Eight west African nations are contributing to the African mission which is expected to take over the baton from France, and Chad has also pledged 2,000 soldiers.
© 2013 AFP