Malian troops patrol key town after driving out IslamistsBy: Serge Daniel
DIABALY – Malian soldiers on Tuesday patrolled Diabaly to buttress their presence in the central town, which they seized with another key outpost from radical Islamists with the help of French troops.
The breakthrough drove Al Qaeda-linked rebels out of key positions in government-held areas, where their advance toward the capital Bamako spurred former colonial power France to launch an offensive 12 days ago.
In Diabaly, 400 kilometres north of Bamako, French troops handed over charge of the town to Malian soldiers after driving out the Islamists on Monday, an AFP journalist said.
“Our mission is not to stay here, we will leave the town to the Malians,” French Colonel Frederic, not giving his last name in line with army policy, told AFP on Monday night.
Residents applauded wildly, yelling “Long Live France!” as the troops rolled into the town as part of the offensive which has won wide international backing.
France swept to Mali’s aid ten months after it lost over half its territory to Islamists who have imposed brutal sharia law in northern towns, amid rising fears that the vast zone could become a new Afghanistan-like haven for Al-Qaeda.
Malian army chief General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said Monday’s victory came after “aerial support from our French partners neutralised all the enemy vehicles and enemy fighters who were in the town and around Diabaly.”
Diabaly was seized by Islamists in a surprise attack several days after the French began pounding their positions with air strikes.
Along with the town of Konna 100 kilometres west of Diabaly - also since re-captured - the Islamists gained control of strategic points at the narrow centre of the bow-tie shaped nation.
Speaking in an interview with French radio RFI, Dembele said the French-backed army was forging ahead for “the total liberation of northern Mali”.
“If the support remains consistent, it wont take more than a month to free Gao and Timbuktu,” he said, referring to two of three main cities along with Kidal, in the vast, semi-arid north which has been occupied for ten months.
These towns have been subjected to brutal sharia law by the Islamists, who have whipped smokers and drinkers, banned music, forced women to wear veils and long robes, amputated the limbs of thieves and stoned adulterers to death.
Dembele said troops from Niger and Chad were expected to come through Niger, which borders Mali on the east, and head to Gao, a key Islamist stronghold which has been pounded by French airstrikes.
“The intention of the enemy fighters is to withdraw into the hills around Aguelhok,” a far northern town near the Algerian border, he said.
The strategic crossroads town of Douentza, which was seized by the Islamists in September, was also retaken on Monday by French and Malian troops.
Amid the fighting, Mali extended by three months a state of emergency in place since January 12 and under which public gatherings, rallies and anything that can disrupt public order are banned.
“The military operations to liberate the occupied regions of our country are panning out well and the need to install a peaceful social climate throughout the country,” were the reasons for extending the state of emergency, a government statement said.
Rights bodies have raised concerns about a growing humanitarian crisis as thousands flee the fresh wave of fighting, facing hunger and atrocities as they run from their homes.
Mali’s crisis first erupted when the nomadic Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalised by the 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.
The Tuaregs allied with Islamist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and seized control of huge swathes of territory including the main northern towns of Gao, Kidal and fabled Timbuktu.
The Islamists soon chased out their more secular Tuareg allies and began imposing an extreme form of sharia, or Islamic law, flogging, amputating and sometimes executing violators.
Their success in seizing a vast stretch of desert territory raised fears they could use northern Mali as a base to launch attacks on the region, Europe and beyond.
The planned deployment of around 6 000 African soldiers meanwhile continued slowly into Bamako. The UN-approved African-led force is hampered by cash and logistical constraints, requiring up to US$265 million.