In a potential breakthrough for the fledgling campaign to drive Islamist rebels from their strongholds in Mali, French and Malian troops are poised to secure the town of Diabaly amid reports that rebel forces have abandoned the town.
The news comes in the wake of a virtual information blockade out of the city. Despite reports earlier this week suggesting heavy fighting between French ground troops and rebels who had embedded themselves within the population, Diabaly residents say it was French airpower, not boots on the ground, that proved a decisive factor.
Residents on Friday expressed concern about the delay in ground forces arriving to secure the town. The recent history of Diabaly also calls into question the quality of the Malian troops that are needed to hold on to such areas cleared by the French military intervention.
In less tenuous times, Diabaly was a nondescript hamlet in a part of Mali that aspired to be an agricultural oasis in the scorching climate of Africa’s Sahel. But the town of 35,000 took on a strategic significance when Islamist rebels took control just days after the French began bombing various locations in central and northern Mali. With Diabaly's fall, rebel forces had advanced to just 270 miles from the capital and France scrambled troops northward.
A full-scale ground war appeared just around the corner when French chief of staff Adm. Edouard Guillaud told Europe 1 television that ground troops would soon be “fighting directly,” against their Islamist adversaries. Diabaly, it seemed, was destined to become a symbol for when a limited air campaign against specific targets became a more complicated endeavor.
The exact details of what has transpired since are proving difficult to parse. While several media outlets have reported that heavy fighting took place between French ground troops and rebel forces within the city, several residents who fled the area for the nearby city of Niono told the Monitor that no fighting took place.
“We heard from some people on the outside that the French were here, but we never saw them,” said Assey Touré, a 26 year old farmer who arrived at the checkpoint in Niono around 2:30 pm Friday, with three exhausted looking members of his extended family crammed on the back of his motorcycle.
Mr. Touré told the Monitor that the rebels started leaving the town around 8 a.m. that morning. “Things are clam, and people are finally able to leave the village,” he said.
This information was confirmed by several residents, who trickled in on a variety of vehicles, including motorcycles, bush taxis, small busses, and even flatbeds affixed to farm equipment.
According to several eyewitness accounts, the rebels dispersed this morning in the direction of neighboring town Sokolo, pausing to bury their dead in accordance with Islam.
“There were some blacks among them, but most were whites,” said Diabaly resident Fatoumata Shonta, referring to the lighter skinned ethnic-Tuaregs and Arabs who make up a majority of the rebel ranks.
Another resident who fled Diabaly confirmed that the Islamists appear to have left in haste, confirming that they left “grenades and rocket launchers” in the street.
Ousman Tangara arrived in Niono in awe of the accuracy of French air strikes. “It was the bombs that drove them out!” he exclaimed, “the French can hit any car they want!”
Tangara said that when one aerial strike hit a rebel vehicle that was transporting munitions, the explosion “shook the whole village” and it sounding like “rain was falling on our houses” as the debris continued to fall from the sky for several minutes.
Tangara joined the chorus of Diabaly residents who wondered why French and Malian forces had not come to fill in the power vacuum left by the rebels. “We want the army to come in and secure our village so that we can return to our homes,” he said, “there is no time to wait.”
Malian soldiers have a notorious past in Diabaly, however. The town became a household name this past September when Malian forces killed at least 16 Mauritanian Islamic preachers there.
The incident sparked a flurry of accusations and speculation in local and regional press. The Malian military initially said that the preachers – who were heading overland to Bamako for a religious conference – had failed to stop at a checkpoint, at which point soldiers at the checkpoint identified the bearded men as Islamist rebels and opened fire on the convoy.
The official story was quickly exposed as a cover-up, as a survivor and other witnesses confirmed that the preachers had been removed from their vehicles at the checkpoint and summarily executed. The massacre prompted Mali’s foreign minister to fly to neighboring Mauritania to smooth relations, and served as yet another example of the lack of discipline in the Malian military.