January 18, 2013 6:58 pm

Islamist rebels forced out of Malian town

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Malian forces supported by French troops forced Islamist rebels out of the central town of Diabaly on Friday after several days of fighting, according to its mayor.

Al-Qaeda-linked militants seized had seized control of Diabaly on Monday, the closest they have come so far to Mali’s capital Bamako, 250 miles to the southwest.

“Soldiers are in the town carrying out mopping up operations,” Oumar Diakite, Diabaly mayor, told Reuters by telephone. “There are lots of burned-out vehicles that the Islamists tried to hide in the orchards.”

The capture of the town has not yet been confirmed by Mali’s army or France. Information from the frontlines of the weeklong conflict is difficult to verify.

Earlier on Friday it was confirmed that Islamist forces had been driven away from the town of Konna, to the east. The fall of the town to the advancing rebels on January 10 saw Mali’s government request urgent military help from France.

French jets and helicopters responded the next day, with President Francois Hollande saying the rebels presented a terror threat to Mali, the region and western countries.

Though France initially only intended to provide air cover, the stronger-than-expected rebel resistance saw a change of strategy. Almost 1,800 French troops are now on the ground in Mali, with some assisting local forces in direct combat with the militants.

Fighters from the Islamist alliance made up of local movement Ansar Dine as well as regional groups, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, moved into the homes of civilians in both Konna and Diabaly, making them hard to target.

Experts estimate there are several thousand rebel fighters, many of them trained and well-armed.

Mali’s army, by contrast, is considered weak.

The Islamist rebels have vowed to drag France into a long war in its former colony, and the decision to intervene appears to have already had a spillover effect. A separate jihadi movement that kidnapped dozens of foreign workers at a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria on Wednesday demanded that France end its mission in Mali.

African troops have started deploying to Mali as part of a regional effort to reunite the country. About 300 soldiers from Togo and Nigeria arrived in Bamako on Thursday, and several thousand more troops have been promised by various countries. Chad has pledged to send 2,000 of its soldiers, who may be the best suited of all the regional troops to conditions in Mali’s desert north, held by rebels since April.

A West African force was due to deploy to Mali in September under a UN-backed operation, but the mission has now been fast-tracked.

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