Malian and French troops patrolled the outskirts of the contested town of Diabaly yesterday as Paris said Russia and Canada offered to help transport foreign troops to defeat Islamists in northern Mali.
There are conflicting reports of whether the Islamists still hold the strategic outpost of Diabaly, about 400km north of the capital, Bamako. The region is known for housing the most battle-hardened and fanatical Islamists.
“This mission of observation and dissuasion is mainly aimed at stopping any infiltration southward by the militants,” a Malian security official said on condition of anonymity.
Other reports said the radical Islamists were leaving areas under their control in the extreme north for the mountainous region of Kidal, 1,500km from Bamako and near the border with Algeria.
Kidal was the first town seized by an amalgam of al-Qaeda linked militants and Tuareg separatist groups in March last year. The two sides then had a falling out and the Islamists have since gained the upper hand in the vast desert north.
“The jihadists are increasingly leaving other areas to go towards Kidal, which is a hilly region,” another Malian security official said.
A municipal official from the town of Douentza, about 800km from the capital, backed up the claim, saying: “They are fleeing. All indications show that they are seeking refuge in Kidal, which is difficult to access.”
A French military offensive launched on Jan. 11 and initially restricted to air strikes before being extended to ground battles has halted the rebels’ sweep into the government-controlled south.
However, the counter-offensive has drawn some criticism, with Human Rights Watch alleging abuses committed by Malian soldiers.