POSTED: 3:00 a.m. HST, Jan 20, 2013
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Burned out vehicles and scattered bullets dotted the streets of a central Malian town after radical Islamists retreated following days of French airstrikes, according to video obtained Sunday.
The Malian military announced late Saturday that the government was now controlling Diabaly, marking an important accomplishment for the French-led offensive to oust the extremists from northern and central Mali.
"People are calm since the Islamists left the city of Diabaly before it was taken by the Malian and French forces yesterday," said Oumar Coulibaly, who lives in the nearby town of Niono.
The Associated Press obtained video filmed Saturday by a local resident, which shows people from Diabaly inspecting the fighters' vehicles and charred weaponry destroyed by French airstrikes and Malian ground forces.
Several armored vehicles belonging to the Malian army also can be seen lying abandoned and damaged at the side of roads in Diabaly, a town of 35,000 that is home to an important military camp.
The video marks the first pictures to emerge from the area, which was taken over by al-Qaida-linked militants at the beginning of the week. The zone remains blocked off by a military cordon and journalists have not been able to access the area so far.
Residents who had fled to the nearby town of Niono and officials described how Islamists fled the town on foot after days of French airstrikes that destroyed their vehicles.
"They tried to hijack a car, but the driver didn't stop and they fired on the car and killed the driver," said a Malian intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
The Islamists first seized control of the main towns in northern Mali nine months ago, taking advantage of a power vacuum after a military coup in the distant capital of Bamako.
West African regional neighbors talked of a military intervention to retake northern Mali for months, but it was not until the French began their offensive Jan. 11 that the Islamists faced a military threat to their grip on power.
The Islamists took Diabaly several days later — 270 miles (430 kilometers) away from the capital — as part of an alarming descent into central Mali and closer to the government seat of power in Bamako.
Speaking Saturday on French 3 television, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Drian said France now has 2,000 troops in Mali and "could go beyond" the 2,500 troops initially announced for Mali.
Neighboring countries are expected to contribute around 3,000 troops to the operation. While some initial contributions from Togo, Nigeria and Benin have arrived to help the French, concerns about the mission have delayed other neighbors from sending their promised troops so far.
France's foreign minister said Saturday that "our African friends need to take the lead" in the military intervention, though he acknowledged it could be weeks before neighbors are able to do so. Laurent Fabius spoke at a closely-watched summit in Ivory Coast focusing on ways that African forces can better help Mali as France's military intervention there entered its second week.
"Step by step, I think it's a question from what I heard this morning of some days, some weeks, the African troops will take over," Fabius said in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast.
Fabius also said that a donor summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 29 "will be a key event."
Associated Press writers Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.