DIABALY, Mali — French troops in armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets of Diabaly on Monday, winning praise from residents of this besieged town after Malian forces retook control with French help a week after radical Islamists invaded.
The Islamists also have deserted the town of Douentza, which they had held since September, according to a local official who said French and Malian forces arrived there on Monday as well.
The terrorists' occupation of Diabaly marked their deepest encroachment into government-held territory, and Monday's retaking of the town is a significant victory for the French-led intervention in the West African nation.
Diabaly, about 320 miles north of the capital of Bamako, fell into rebel hands Jan. 14. Residents said those who fled in the aftermath were forced to escape on foot through rice fields.
"We are truly really grateful to the French who came in the nick of time," said Gaoussou Kone, 34, the head of a local youth association.
"Without the French, not only would there no longer be a Diabaly, there would soon no longer be a Mali. These people wanted to go all the way to Bamako."
On Monday, all that remained of the Islamists were the charred shells of their vehicles destroyed by the French air strikes. Three of them were clustered in one location, the machine-gun cannon of one still pointing skyward.
Islamists had seized Diabaly just days after the French began their military operation Jan. 11. The offensive is aimed at stopping the terrorists from encroaching toward the capital in Mali's south from their strongholds in the vast, desert north where they have been amputating the hands of thieves and forcing women to wear veils for the past nine months.
Malian military officials reported late Saturday that they had retaken the town after Islamists fled, but French officials later said Sunday that the town had not been recaptured.
On Monday, about 200 French infantrymen supported by six combat helicopters and reconnaissance planes made their way to Diabaly.
"With the help of the French troops it's reassuring, but we must search, and search some more. There may still be a few pockets of enemy resistance," said a Malian army commander who gave only his last name, Samassa.
The Islamist fighters had insinuated themselves with civilians before leaving, so there was a possibility that some had remained. Malian soldiers on Diabaly's outskirts set up a roadblock south of the town where they checked the identity papers of travelers.
In an interview with France-5 TV, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the air strikes in Mali had caused "significant" losses among the jihadists, and only minor skirmishes involved French forces on the ground.
Meanwhile, the extremist group behind the deadly hostage crisis in Algeria threatened more attacks against foreign targets if France does not bring an immediate halt to its military operation in Mali.
In a statement, the Masked Brigade warned of more such attacks against any country backing France's military intervention in Mali.
"We promise all the countries that participated in the Crusader campaign … that we will carry out more operations if they do not reverse their decision," it said, according to a transcript released by SITE Intelligence Group.