A combined force of French and Malian troops have taken control of two key towns in central Mali.
Following 10 days of air strikes, a joint column of ground forces entered the town of Diabali today. The soldiers encountered little or no resistance from Islamist rebels, who had already fled into the surrounding countryside to avoid the air strikes. Diabali is a key town in central Mali, and was the highest priority for French forces. At the beginning of the French intervention air strikes had driven rebels out of the town, but without ground forces to establish control, the Islamists soon returned. Diabali is located 350km north of the capital Bamako, and south of the front line towns of Mopti and Sevare which define the border between government controlled territory and the northern region controlled by Islamist rebels with links to al Qaeda. As such, Diabali represented an important foothold in the south for rebels, and its fall to French and government soldiers is an important step on the path to the ‘total reconquest’ of Mali – which the French president promised on Sunday.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced told AFP today that the town of Diabali is now under the control of French and Malian troops, and that the town of Douentza had also been recaptured. Douentza is another key town in central Mali, and is located 800km (500 miles) from Bamako.
Resident’s of Diabali claimed that rebels had fled the town ahead of the French advance, ditching their religious robes in favour of normal clothes in order to blend in with the local population. Although the advancing forces did not have to fight to take Diabali, the French commander in the region has warned that they may still face a threat from landmines and booby traps left behind by fleeing rebels.
Meanwhile, further north within the heartland of rebel held territory, air strikes have continued in Timbuktu and Gao. Experts suggest that the main purpose of the northern air strikes is currently to reduce the rebel’s military capabilities and prevent them from launching a counterattack.