DIABALY, Mali – French troops in armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets of Diabaly on Monday, winning praise from residents of this besieged town after Malian forces retook control of it with French help a week after radical Islamists invaded.
The Islamists also have deserted the town of Douentza, which they had held since September, according to a local official who said French and Malian forces arrived there on Monday as well.
The militants’ occupation of Diabaly marked their deepest encroachment into government-held territory, and Monday’s retaking of the town is a significant victory for the French-led intervention.
Diabaly, located about 320 miles north of Bamako, the capital, fell into rebel hands on Jan. 14. Residents said those who fled in the aftermath were forced to escape on foot through rice fields.
“We are truly really grateful to the French who came in the nick of time,” said Gaoussou Kone, 34, the head of a local youth association. “Without the French, not only would there no longer be a Diabaly, there would soon no longer be a Mali. These people wanted to go all the way to Bamako.”
On Monday, all that remained of the Islamists were the charred shells of their vehicles destroyed by the French airstrikes. Three of them were clustered in one location, the machine gun cannon of one still pointing skyward.
Islamists had seized Diabaly just days after the French began their military operation on Jan. 11. The offensive is aimed at stopping the radical Islamists from encroaching toward the capital in Mali’s south from their strongholds in the vast, desert north where they have been amputating the hands of thieves and forcing women to wear veils for the past nine months.
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