Niono, Mali - Islamist rebels withdrew from their forward positions on both of Mali’s war fronts Friday, an apparent sign that they’ll be shifting tactics after heavy French aerial bombardment pounded their positions even in civilian residential areas.
The Malian military announced that it had regained control of Konna, the city whose fall last week prompted the French to send troops and air power to the West African nation.
The Islamists also pulled out of the town of Diabaly, which they’d taken Monday, after days of intense aerial bombardment. Malian troops were expected to occupy the town Friday night.
Residents fleeing Diabaly said they never saw any ground combat or French soldiers but that the air attack included jets and helicopters. Both officially and privately, local authorities said that as far as they knew, there’d been no ground attack on Diabaly.
“Diabaly is free. There is not even a single rebel in Diabaly,” said Seydou Traore, the prefect of the Niono region, which includes Diabaly. “I don’t know if it is a tactical withdrawal or if they ran away. There was no ground fighting."
In Paris, a French military spokesman said the rebels abandoned Konna after a fierce aerial campaign that included 70 airstrikes. But the spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard, did not acknowledge the withdrawal from Diabaly, perhaps signaling the suddenness of the rebel departure. “There has been no action in Diabaly,” he said.
Burkhard said that French troops had not engaged in close combat with the Islamists. “Only the French special forces have been in contact” with the enemy, primarily from the air, he said. There had been “no real fighting,” he added.
He said French troops were continuing to arrive in Bamako, the country’s capital, nearly 200 miles to the south of Niono, and that a company of French soldiers had been sent to Markala, about 160 miles north of the capital, both to guard a crucial dam there and to serve as a blocking force should the Islamists attempt to move toward Bamako.
The rebels’ push southward 10 days ago from the harsh Sahara Desert, which composes most of northern Mali, into the lush green lands of central Mali, where rice paddies and eucalyptus plantations irrigated by the Niger River dominate, had surprised Mali’s government, which feared the Islamists’ advance soon might include Bamako. Mali’s president quickly asked the United Nations and France for help, and French troops began arriving in this former French colony a week ago.
A French bombing campaign failed, however, to dislodge the Islamists from Konna, the town on the eastern bank of the Niger River that the Islamists had captured Jan. 9. Then on Monday, the rebels opened a front on the western side of the river, taking Diabaly in a two-pronged attack that routed the Malian garrison. Malian troops at other outposts in the area also withdrew, allowing the Islamists to expand their presence to the abandoned towns.
It was unknown whether all those gains had been ceded to the French-backed Malian government Friday or whether some rebels had remained behind. Nor was it immediately clear whether the rebel withdrawal from both positions was coordinated.
What precipitated the withdrawal was the subject of rumor. Reports swirled among Diabaly townspeople that the rebels’ sudden withdrawal came after French aircraft bombed a truck piled with rebel corpses that was heading to the cemetery. The truck was obliterated, incinerating the corpses, now denied a proper Muslim burial. Then the rout began, said residents pouring into Niono. No one, however, claimed to have seen the incident personally.
A withdrawal for purely cat-and-mouse reasons seemed unlikely. By pulling back, the rebels abandoned their checkpoints around the communities, opening the floodgates for a stream of relieved residents who hadn’t yet found a way to escape. Without a civilian population around them, the rebels would have become far more exposed to the aerial attacks.
Fleeing residents had been reporting for days that rebels were parking their gun-mounted trucks in residential areas in hopes that the possibility of killing civilians would deter the French. But as civilians fled, the tactic’s utility was waning.
The French probably were aided in their aerial assault by special forces on the ground, operating with the advantage of night-vision technologies.
Four armored vehicles of French special forces rolled out north of Niono toward Diabaly on Thursday evening, said a local official, who asked not to be named as he wasn’t authorized to speak on military matters. The official said the special forces didn’t return and were manning a covert forward operating base.
Niono has been under a strict 6 p.m. curfew since the fall of Diabaly. On Friday, after the news of the rebels’ Diabaly retreat, the local state radio made a special announcement to remind residents to stay indoors after 6 p.m. There would be military movements during the night, the announcement said. As dusk fell, French vehicles closed the road that leads to Niono from the south.
Residents who’d escaped from rebel-held Diabaly seemed surprised at the sudden reversal. Many had predicted in the preceding days that the rebels wouldn’t be dislodged easily or soon.
At noon Friday, one group that had sneaked out of Diabaly the night before and just arrived in Niono had no idea about the events.
"Maybe we can defeat those people, but it will be very difficult," said Fousseni Traore, 19. "I’m the son of a soldier. I’ve never seen such powerful weapons. One of them, when it shoots, the earth seems like it will collapse."
"We will need outside help," he said, unaware that the town he’d just left was now, for the moment, back in government hands.
McClatchy special correspondent Frederic Castel contributed from Paris.