Mali Islamists gain ground despite French fighting

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, including a strategic military camp, bringing them much closer to the capital, French and Malian military officials said.

After cutting off a key road, the al-Qaeda-linked extremists overran the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The French Embassy in Bamako, the national capital, immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the region of Segou, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety.

The French military, which began battling the extremists in northern Mali on Friday, expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat. But the intense assault, including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who were only 250 miles from Bamako, in the far south.

The rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army that couldn’t hold them back,” Mr. Le Drian said.

The Malian military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency began almost a year ago in the West African nation. The fighters control the north but had been blocked in the narrow central part of the landlocked nation.

They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces.

Mauritania lies to the northwest of Mali, and its armed forces have been put on high alert. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso has sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks. Even Algeria, which had earlier argued against a military intervention, is now helping France by opening its airspace to French Rafale jets.

Many of Mali’s neighbors, which were pushing for a military intervention to flush out the jihadists, earlier argued that airstrikes by sophisticated Western aircraft would be no match for the mixture of rebel groups occupying northern Mali. Leaders of ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, stressed that the north of Mali is mostly desert and that it would be easy to pick off the convoys of rebel vehicles from the air since there is almost no ground cover.

Monday’s surprise assault and the downing of a French combat helicopter by rebel fire last Friday have given pause to many. Just hours before Diabaly fell, a commander at the military post in Niono, the town immediately to the south, laughed on the phone and confidently asserted that the Islamists would never take Niono.

By afternoon, the commander, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, sounded almost desperate.

“We feel truly threatened,” he said.

He said the rebels approached Diabaly from the east, infiltrating the rice-growing region of Alatona, which until recently was the site of a large, U.S.-funded Millennium Challenge Corp. project.

French aircraft bombed a rebel convoy 25 miles from Diabaly late Sunday night, the commander said.

“This morning we woke up and realized that the enemy was still there. They cut off the road to Diabaly. We are truly surprised — astonished,” he said.

It was unclear what happened to the Malian troops based at the military camp in Diabaly. The commander said that since the Islamists seized the town, he had not been able to reach any of the officers at the base.

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