French troops recapture key frontline towns in Mali
French and Malian troops recaptured the key frontline towns of Diabaly and Douentza on Monday in a major boost to their push north to flush out Al Qaeda-linked rebels.
The inroads are a significant advance in the 11-day offensive led by former colonial power France, whose aim is the "total reconquest" of Mali's strategically important but sparsely populated vast desert north.
The French defence ministry in Paris said "Malian troops backed by French soldiers" retook the two towns in a "definite military victory" for the forces.
A convoy of about 30 armoured vehicles transporting some 200 Malian and French troops moved into Diabaly, 400 km north of the capital Bamako, early on Monday, meeting no resistance.
The troops got a red carpet welcome from locals who cheered them as the soldiers took photographs on their mobile phones to record the triumphant entry, an AFP journalist said.
Diabaly has been the theatre of air strikes and fighting since it was seized by Islamists a week ago.
Douentza lies in what was Islamist territory east and north of the town of Konna, whose capture earlier this month by extremists sparked the French intervention. Konna was recaptured by the Malian army last week.
The French onslaught, backed by embattled Malian troops, forged ahead despite threats of further retaliation from jihadists after a stunning hostage attack at a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria resulted in scores of deaths.
A colonel in the Malian army said earlier that a "fringe of the Diabaly population adheres to the jihadists' theories and we must be very careful in the coming hours".
French television footage from Diabaly has shown charred pick-up trucks abandoned by the Islamists amid mud-brick homes.
One resident said the rebels had fled the town which was abandoned by many of its residents, and those remaining lacked food and other essentials.
As news of the advances came through, the European Union offered to host a global meeting on Mali in Brussels on February 5, involving the EU, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States regional bloc.
The EU aims to send about 500 military trainers to Mali by mid-February.
On Sunday, French troops buttressed their position as they prepared the drive north, moving into the key central towns of Niono and Sevare.
Sevare has a strategically important airport about 630km northeast of Bamako that could help serve as a base for operations further north.
France swept to the aid of the Malian army on January 11, a day after the Islamists made a push towards Bamako in the government-held southern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
The crisis in Mali began when the nomadic Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalised by government, launched a rebellion a year ago and inflicted such humiliation on the Malian army that it triggered a military coup in Bamako.
In the ensuing political vacuum, the central government lost control of the north to the insurgents, and the Tuaregs were instrumental in helping a triad of Islamist rebel groups including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seize control of huge swathes of territory.
But the Tuaregs' alliance of convenience with the Islamists quickly disintegrated. AQIM and other Islamists began to run territories under their control like a particularly brutal medieval emirate and imposed a harsh form of Sharia law.
This spiked fears abroad that the occupied area could become a new haven for terrorists.
Meanwhile, the planned deployment of nearly 6,000 African soldiers continued slowly into Bamako, hampered by cash and logistical constraints.
Only 150 African troops have arrived but a first contingent of 150 Burkina Faso troops on Monday left for Mali.
Eight west African nations are contributing to the African mission which is expected to take over the baton from France, and Chad has also pledged 2,000 soldiers.
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