SEGOU, Mali – American planes transported French troops and equipment to Mali, a U.S. military spokesman said Tuesday, as Malian and French forces pushed into the Islamist-held north.
Douentza had been held by Islamist rebels for four months, located 120 miles northeast of Mopti, the previous line-of-control held by the Malian military in Mali’s narrow central belt. The Islamist fighters have controlled the vast desert stretches of northern Mali, with the weak government clinging to the south, since a military coup in the capital in March last year unleashed chaos.
French and Malian troops arrived in Douentza Monday to find that the Islamists had retreated from the town, said a resident, Sali Maiga.
“The Malian military and the French army spent their first night and the people are very happy,” Maiga said Tuesday.
A curfew went into effect at 8 p.m., and no gunfire or other incidents were reported overnight, he said.
In September, a convoy of pickup trucks carrying bearded men entered Douentza, and in the months that followed, the Islamist extremists forced women to wear veils and enlisted children as young as 12 as soldiers in training.
French and Malian forces also took Diabaly, which is about 121 miles west of Mopti, on Monday after Islamist fighters who had seized it a week earlier fled amid French air strikes.
The presence of Malian soldiers in the two towns marks tangible accomplishments for the French-led mission, which began Jan. 11 after the rebels pushed south and threatened the capital, Bamako. But there are grave doubts that the Malian army will be able to hold newly recovered territory without foreign support. The coup disrupted the chain of command, and Malian soldiers last year repeatedly gave up towns to the insurgents while putting up little, or no, fight.
The U.S. Air Force has flown five C-17 flights into Bamako, delivering more than 80 French troops and 124 tons of equipment thus far in an ongoing airlift operation, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Tuesday. He said the U.S. is still considering a French request for U.S. aerial refueling support.
The U.S. C-17 transport planes began flights from the French base in Istres, France, to Bamako.
Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said selective air strikes were continuing against suspected rebel targets. He said the radical Islamist fighters have been trying to disperse in light of the French bombardments, and as such had become “less dangerous” than before.
In recent days, French fighter jets and helicopter gunships have conducted about a dozen sorties per day. France has about 3,150 troops now involved in the operation code-named Operation Serval in Mali, all but 1,000 of whom are currently deployed in the former French colony.
Gen. Ibrahima Dahirou, the head of Mali’s armed forces, told Radio France Internationale in an interview published on its Web site Tuesday that French air strikes have made all the difference so far.
The Malian military, he said, now has the objective of retaking all northern Mali, adding: “If the (air) support is significant, it won’t take more than a month for Gao and Timbuktu” to return under government control.
Dahirou also said Nigerian and Chadian forces, by passing through neighboring Niger, could reach Gao “within the month.” He said he expected the rebels to retreat to the hills of Aguelhoc, in Mali’s far northeast.
France said Monday about 1,000 African troops from Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Niger and Chad are now taking part in the military intervention. France hopes West African soldiers will eventually take the lead alongside Malian troops in securing the country.
Neighboring African countries are ultimately expected to contribute around 3,000 troops but concerns about the mission have delayed some from sending their promised troops.
France got a new vote of confidence Tuesday as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised its intervention in Mali, saying dialogue was not now possible with the rebels. It came a day after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement, said he opposed France’s intervention.