As Troops Advance in Mali, U.S. Begins Airlift
By LYDIA POLGREEN, PETER TINTI and ALAN COWELL
SÉGOU, Mali — Malian and French forces were reported to be in control of two important central Malian towns on Tuesday after the French Defense Ministry said they recaptured them on Monday, pushing back an advance by Islamist militants who have overrun the country’s northern half.
At the same time, the United States military said on Tuesday that it had begun airlifting French troops and equipment from a base in southern France to Bamako, the capital of Mali, aboard giant C-17 transport planes.
Two flights arrived on Monday and a third on Tuesday, and the airlift will continue for the next several days, Tom Saunders, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command, said in a telephone interview from the command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defense minister of France, hailed the French-Malian advance on Monday as “a clear military success for the government in Bamako and for French forces intervening in support of these operations.”
The developments in the two central towns — Diabaly, about 275 miles north of Bamako, and Douentza, on the eastern bank of the Niger River, 300 miles northeast of the Malian capital — represented a reassertion of government control in areas where a lightning strike by Islamist forces earlier this month prompted France to intervene, initially with airstrikes, to halt the rebel advance.
French soldiers in armored vehicles, part of what the military command in Paris has labeled Operation Serval, rolled through the town of Diabaly on Monday to cheers from residents, who flew French and Malian flags to welcome them.
“I want to thank the French people,” said Mamadou Traoré, 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. Traoré said. “It was incredible.”
In Douentza, The Associated Press quoted a Malian official, Sali Maiga, as saying Islamist forces had already retreated from the settlement when French and Malian troops arrived on Monday.
After imposing an overnight curfew, “the Malian military and the French Army spent their first night, and the people are very happy,” the official said Tuesday, and there have been no reports of incidents or gunfire.
The advances by government and French troops left them deployed along the main access routes to the desert redoubts of the Islamist fighters farther north in settlements like Timbuktu and Gao.
Interviewed by the French radio station RFI, Gen. Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele, the Malian Army chief of staff, said his forces were seeking “the total liberation of northern Mali.”
“If the support remains consistent, it won’t take more than a month to free Gao and Timbuktu,” he said, northern cities that have been occupied by the Islamists since early 2012. France has listed the restoration of central government authority across Mali as one of its aims in the campaign.
Agence France-Presse quoted French military officials on Tuesday as saying French warplanes had attacked Islamist command centers near Timbuktu in airstrikes over the past 48 hours. France has said it is aiming to send 2,500 soldiers to Mali, and 2,150 have been deployed so far.
Neighboring Chad has said it will send 2,000 soldiers to join West African forces assembling in support of government and French troops in Mali.
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 proved 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,” said one Diabaly woman, Djenaba Cissé. “When I walked with my brother to the fields, they would bother us. 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.
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 Diakité, 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.”
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