Malian soldiers yesterday 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 the 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, 400km north of Bamako, French troops handed over charge of the town to Malian soldiers after driving out the Islamists on Monday.
“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, said on Monday night.
Residents applauded wildly, yelling: “Long Live France!” as the troops rolled into the town as part of the offensive that has won wide international backing.
France swept to Mali’s aid 10 months after it lost over half its territory to Islamists who have imposed brutal Shariah law in northern towns, amid rising fears that the vast zone could become a new Afghanistan-like haven for al-Qaeda.
Diabaly was seized by Islamists in a surprise attack several days after the French began pounding their positions with airstrikes.
Along with the town of Konna, 100km west of Diabaly — also since recaptured — the Islamists gained control of strategic points at the narrow center of the bow-tie shaped nation.
Speaking in an interview with French radio RFI, Malian Army General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said the French-backed army was forging ahead for “the total liberation of northern Mali.”
“If the support remains consistent, it won’t 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 that has been occupied for 10 months.
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.
Amid the fighting, Mali extended by three months a state of emergency in place since Jan. 12 and under which public gatherings, rallies and anything that can disrupt public order are banned.
Meanwhile, the US has started transporting French soldiers and equipment to Mali as part of its logistical aid to French forces, a US official said yesterday.
“We have started airlifting French army personnel and equipment to Bamako from Istres,” said Benjamin Benson, a spokesman for US Africa Command.
A Reuters camera crew yesterday saw a US-flagged military transport aircraft taking off from the Istres air base in southern France.
Benson said the US flights had started on Monday, but declined to give details on the number of planes being used.
“We did have two flights today so far. An early-morning flight and a later one. We are going to continue the operations for the next couple of days as required to meet the needs of the French to get the material delivered,” he said.
Benson said the US was also working with France on intelligence issues, but declined to say if surveillance drones were being used.