In Mali, French forces move north amid plea for faster African deployments (+video)

Malian troops have entered the key garrison town of Diabaly after French airstrikes pushed out Islamist rebels. But many residents wonder if they're gone for good. 

By , Correspondent

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    Malian soldiers rejoice as they come back from victory in Diabaly, a key town in the north.
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 As Malian troops enter Diabaly, a garrison town of 35,000 recently abandoned by rebels in response to French air strikes, France’s foreign minister has warned his African counterparts that "African friends need to take the lead" in the ongoing military campaign against Islamist rebels in Mali. 

The Malian Army’s inability to hold Diabaly was just one of a string of military setbacks that prompted France to mobilize more than 2,000 troops on the ground and to call for West African nations to accelerate troop deployments to Mali. Islamist rebels gained control of the town – just 270 miles from the capital city of Bamako – only days after France intervened Jan. 11 to stem an ambitious rebel push southward to the town of Konna, in central Mali. Diabaly, with its relative proximity to Bamako, has since come to be viewed as a second frontline of a conflict that was originally envisioned as a limited air campaign to support Malian troops.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made his plea at a special Mali summit in neighboring Ivory Coast on Saturday, where West Africa regional bloc ECOWAS met to iron out the details of sending West African troops to Mali. Troops from Nigeria and Togo have already arrived in Bamako, but they represent just a fraction of the approximately 3,000 West African troops slated to join the fight. Most agree, however, that it will be weeks before more African boots are on the ground and start replacing French ones.

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Until then, French troops find themselves bearing the brunt of of the military responsibility. On Saturday, The Monitor watched a convoy of armored vehicles and lighter trucks prepare to move toward the town of Niono, northeast of Bamako. French troops were digging trenches – replete with sandbags and heavy weaponry – as far south as Sarakala, a tiny village about 65 miles south of Diabaly.

Until yesterday, the French presence in Niono was  virtually nonexistent, and the checkpoint on the road to Diabaly was manned by Malian troops keeping current by watching news on TV. Some of the people passing through were farmers accessing their fields, while others were among those taking the opportunity to flee Diabaly in the wake of the rebel departure. Several residents confirmed that the Islamist rebels had not allowed anyone to leave the town  while it was under their control, part of an effort to embed themselves within the population to deter French use of air power.

Diabaly resident Fatoumata Shonta was able to escape by telling the rebels that she was going to her onion gardens. Once there, she snuck out on a flatbed truck used for transporting rice with her baby girl and toddler son in tow. Ms. Shonta left with only a small bucket of items: sandals, a t-shirt, and a bit of food.

French forces indicated that the situation in Diabaly might still be tenuous. "In theory, there are few or no rebels there, but that needs to be confirmed, so we will wait to see what happens in the days to come over there," Lt. Col. "Frederic," a French Foreign Legion spokesman in Mali, told the Associated Press. His family name was not given in accordance with standard procedure. 

Many of those fleeing Diabaly and arriving in Niono were quick to stop and make phone calls, capitalizing on their first chance to contact friends and family since the rebel takeover. The cellular network in the city had been down since Tuesday, frustrating citizens and journalists alike, as contradictory reports leaked out of the unreachable town.

But even amid the news that Diabaly is no longer under rebel control, many in nearby Niono wonder if the Islamists are gone for good. The surrounding terrain, a mix of green scrub and desert, offers considerable mobility to insurgents, and in the words of mayor Moriba Coulibaly, “there are lots of ways into Niono.” 

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