Malian troops have entered the key garrison town of Diabaly after French airstrikes pushed out Islamist rebels. But many residents wonder if they're gone for good.
As Malian troops enter Diabaly, a garrison town of 35,000 recently abandoned by rebels in response to French air strikes, France’s foreign minister has warned his African counterparts that "African friends need to take the lead" in the ongoing military campaign against Islamist rebels in Mali.
The Malian Army’s inability to hold Diabaly was just one of a string of military setbacks that prompted France to mobilize more than 2,000 troops on the ground and to call for West African nations to accelerate troop deployments to Mali. Islamist rebels gained control of the town – just 270 miles from the capital city of Bamako – only days after France intervened Jan. 11 to stem an ambitious rebel push southward to the town of Konna, in central Mali. Diabaly, with its relative proximity to Bamako, has since come to be viewed as a second frontline of a conflict that was originally envisioned as a limited air campaign to support Malian troops.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made his plea at a special Mali summit in neighboring Ivory Coast on Saturday, where West Africa regional bloc ECOWAS met to iron out the details of sending West African troops to Mali. Troops from Nigeria and Togo have already arrived in Bamako, but they represent just a fraction of the approximately 3,000 West African troops slated to join the fight. Most agree, however, that it will be weeks before more African boots are on the ground and start replacing French ones.
Until then, French troops find themselves bearing the brunt of of the military responsibility. On Saturday, The Monitor watched a convoy of armored vehicles and lighter trucks prepare to move toward the town of Niono, northeast of Bamako. French troops were digging trenches – replete with sandbags and heavy weaponry – as far south as Sarakala, a tiny village about 65 miles south of Diabaly.