Islamist fighters pull back from towns they occupied
SEGOU, Mali – American planes transported French troops and equipment to Mali, a U.S. military spokesman said Tuesday, as Malian and French forces pushed into the Islamist-held north.
The town of Douentza had been held by Islamist rebels for four months, located 120 miles northeast of Mopti, the previous line-of-control held by the Malian military in Mali’s narrow central belt. The Islamist fighters have controlled the vast desert stretches of northern Mali, with the weak government clinging to the south, since a military coup in the capital in March last year unleashed chaos.
French and Malian troops arrived in Douentza on Monday to find that the Islamists had retreated from it, said a resident, Sali Maiga. “The Malian military and the French army spent their first night and the people are very happy,” Maiga said Tuesday.
French and Malian forces also took the town of Diabaly, which lies 120 miles west of Mopti, on Monday after Islamist fighters who had seized it a week earlier fled amid French airstrikes.
The presence of Malian soldiers in the two towns marks tangible accomplishments for the French-led mission, which began on Jan. 11 after the rebels pushed south and threatened the capital, Bamako. But there are grave doubts that the Malian army will be able to hold newly recovered territory without foreign support.
While fighting raged on the ground in Mali, officials in Brussels discussed plans for the future. The newly appointed head of the planned European Union military training mission, French Gen. Francois Lecointre, is already in Bamako assessing the situation.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has flown five C-17 flights into Bamako, delivering more than 80 French troops and 124 tons of equipment thus far in an ongoing airlift operation, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Tuesday. He said the U.S. is still considering a French request for U.S. aerial refueling support.
The U.S. C-17 transport planes began flights from the French base in Istres, France, to Bamako.