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French and Malian forces take Diabaly but there are fears Islamists will return

The rebels’ seizure of  the strategic town was audacious and had local support, writes Kim Sengupta in Niono, Mali

The fiercest of the fighting in the key Malian town of Diabaly has ended after strikes by French warplanes forced Islamist fighters to flee into the jungle. Left behind today were the grim reminders of what had taken place; buildings pitted by bullets, burnt-out cars and dead bodies.

Diabaly had yet to be completely cleared by late afternoon, with a few jihadists moving along alleyways to carry out ambushes and then disappearing through doorways and over walls. The soldiers said the properties were mainly empty, those living in them long fled.

Commanders of French and Malian forces, who have set up their operations centre in the nearby town of Niono, said the whereabouts of the Islamist fighters remained unclear. The Malian military announced late on Saturday that the government was now controlling Diabaly.

However, even in almost certain defeat, the rebels had some support among the residents. “A small part of the people are helping their cause, we are having to move area by area, that is what is making the war against the Islamists so tough,” acknowledged Colonel Seydou Sogala of the Malian army.

It had taken the French and their Malian allies a relatively long time to recapture this town of 35,000 despite their modern arms. Diabaly, 260 miles from the capital, Bamako, had been stormed by the rebels three days after the French military mission began on 11 January in an audacious counter-attack. Recapturing it was essential not only to open up one of the routes to Timbuktu, but also of symbolic significance. The French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said French air forces had been striking at targets in Gao and Timbuktu yesterday.

Diabaly has bloody resonance even in this particularly vicious civil war. In September, Malian troops arrested 17 Islamic preachers travelling on a Toyota minibus from Mauritania at a checkpoint in the nearby village of Dogofry. The clerics protested that they were going to a religious conference in Bamako. The soldiers accused them of promoting insurgency and summarily executed all but one. The Malian government maintained that the soldiers had taken unauthorised action and expressed “deep condolences”.

The rebels who came into town took retribution, searching for soldiers and, according to residents, shooting dead the heads of families after army uniforms were found in their homes.

The Malian forces were taken by surprise when the fighters first attacked on 14 January, coming across the river in small groups. The Islamists were said to have been led by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an experienced commander of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Attempts to regain control were repelled. Four days ago a column of 48 French armoured cars arrived from Bamoko to retake the city, supported by special forces who destroyed the main rebel fighting points and called down air strikes.

“The terrorists had a lot of weapons and a lot of ammunition, they never seemed to run out, they were using Aks [Kalashnikovs] and RPGs. We had some problems with supplies and we also had to be very careful not to injure civilians,” said Sergeant Issa Bangura. “They were using some of the people as shields and there were a few who were supporting them. But we could not take any chances, so we had to be very careful where we opened fire.

“But then the French arrived and we began to capture districts. When the bombings [air strikes] began, the terrorists knew they had lost and they started running away.”

The French had destroyed a large number of the jihadists’ gun-mounted pick-up trucks, forcing most of the fighters to flee on foot into the jungle to the west of the town.

Ibrahim Susso, who fled Diabaly with his family of eight on Saturday, said: “The Islamists were looking for soldiers and policemen, they killed three men who I know. The people they killed were just related to soldiers, but that was enough. One man was trying to get over a wall when he was shot, his name was Ismail Fada, he was in his 60s. 

“We thought they would be forced out, but the fighting just went on. Then there were the air raids. Because their cars were getting hit the terrorists started panicking, some of them were driving into walls trying to smash them down to get away, quite a few were killed, but also many got away.”

It was the return of some of the Islamists during the night which led to Hania Duame, a widow of 38, escaping yesterday with her sister and three children. “Most of the people just stayed inside their homes because of the fighting. But we have heard what they have been doing in other places, killing people, cutting off their hands. We know they have been particularly cruel to women. I was very worried about my sister and I was worried about myself.

“When they started running away on Saturday we thought it was all over at last. But some of them came back during the night and moved into houses. My father said we must leave before the fighting started again. We live in a small town, we never thought something like this will happen.”