January 21, 2013
French Airstrikes Push Back Islamists and Regain Towns in Central Mali
By LYDIA POLGREEN and PETER TINTI
SEGOU, Mali -- Malian and French troops appeared to recapture two important central Malian towns on Monday, pushing back an advance by Islamist militants who have overrun the country's northern half.
French soldiers in armored vehicles rolled through the town of Diabaly, about 275 miles from the capital, Bamako, to cheers from residents, who flew French and Malian flags to welcome them.
"I want to thank the French people," said Mamadou Traore, a Diabaly resident. He said French airstrikes had chased away the militants without harming any civilians, a claim echoed by other residents.
"None of us were touched," Mr. Traore said. "It was incredible."
Islamist fighters overran Diabaly a week ago, the closest they have come to Bamako in an aggressive surge this month. Worried that there was little to stop them from rolling into the capital, where many French citizens live, France quickly stepped into the fight, striking the militants at the front lines and bombing their strongholds in the north.
Suddenly a long-simmering standoff with the Islamist groups holding the north had been transformed into a war involving French forces, precisely the kind of event the West hoped to avoid. American officials have long warned that Western involvement could stir anti-Western sentiment and provoke terrorist attacks, a fear that seemed to be realized when militants stormed a gas facility in Algeria last week, resulting in the deaths of at least 37 foreign hostages.
Even after French forces entered the fight in Mali, driving back the Islamists would prove more difficult than officials initially suggested. Rather than flee, many of the militants in Diabaly seemed to dig in, taking over homes and putting the civilian population in the cross-fire.
But they eventually fled on Friday morning, residents said, in the face of relentless French airstrikes.
The fighters had little time to impose the version of Shariah law that has made them infamous in the north, where they have carried out public whippings and amputations and stoned a couple to death. But their brief reign over Diabaly was a small taste of the harsh policies they have enacted elsewhere.
"I had to cover my head at all times," Djenaba Cisse said. "When I walked with my brother to the fields, they would bother us," she continued. "They would ask us questions to verify that we were siblings."
Few residents said they actually met the hardened men who had taken control of their village, but Kola Maiga, who lives at the edge of town, recalled their arrival on the morning of Jan. 14.
"I was in my house, and I saw them coming, and I knew, I knew that war was here in Diabaly," Mr. Maiga said. "The first day, they started shooting in the air. They wanted the population to know they have power."
He feared them, he said, but they tried to reassure him, offering cookies to his children.
"They said: 'Do not be afraid. We are with Allah,' " Mr. Maiga said.
Militants have also abandoned the town of Douentza, which they held for several months, The Associated Press reported.
Mali has been in crisis since last January, when Tuaregs in northern Mali began a separatist uprising, newly invigorated by an influx of fighters and weapons from Libya after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
A military coup by junior officers angry at how the government responded to the Tuareg uprising followed in March, leaving the country in disarray and hastening the loss of its northern half to insurgents. Islamist groups, some with links to Al Qaeda, quickly pushed aside the secular Tuareg militants, taking over northern towns and imposing their strict interpretation of Shariah law.
The fighters appeared to find little support among the local population, who said the harsh version of Islam they sought to impose had little resemblance to the moderate faith practiced by most people here.
"These guys, they are vicious," said Oumar Diakite, Diabaly's mayor. "It's not Islam that they want. They want other things. As you can see, a poor country like Mali, they have come to attack us."
Residents who had fled to nearby towns returned to their homes on Monday after hearing that the militants had been chased away.
"They arrived, and they said they were going to bring Shariah here," said Mohamed Tounkara, who returned on Monday. "We don't want Shariah. That's why I left with my family."
He said he was grateful to the French military but had little faith in his own country's army, which in the past year has let half of Mali's territory slip away and ended two decades of democratic rule.
"If France stays here, I trust their army," Mr. Tounkara said. "We don't have complete faith in our army, honestly."
Lydia Polgreen reported from Segou, and Peter Tinti from Diabaly, Mali.