By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, Associated Press
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali Monday and moved closer to the capital, French and Malian authorities said.
In the latest setback, the al-Qaida-linked extremists overran the garrison village of Diabaly in central Mali, France's defense minister said in Paris. Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday the rebels "took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army that couldn't hold them back."
The French government ordered the immediate evacuation of all French nationals living in the Malian town of Segou, located around 210 kilometers (130 miles) from the capital. The evacuation order was confirmed by a French citizen in Segou, who insisted upon anonymity because of the security situation. With the seizure of Diabaly the militants are within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of Segou.
French President Francois Hollande authorized the airstrikes last week after the Islamists began their push south.
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 northwest African nation. The Islamist fighters control the north and had been blocked in Mali's narrow waist in the central part of the country. But by seizing Diabaly, they appear to have now succeeded in a flanking move getting around the 300-kilometer (200-mile) long belt, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces.
Mauritania lies to the west of Mali and its armed forces have been put on high alert, said a military official there who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso has sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks.
The French military, which began battling in Mali on Friday, expanded its aerial bombing campaign of northern Mali, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat. But it failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who now are only 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the capital Bamako, in the far south. Before France sent its forces in on Friday, the closest known spot the Islamists were to the capital was 680 kilometers (420 miles) away near the central belt, though they might have infiltrated closer than that.
France is urging the "Africanization" of the conflict, encouraging African nations to send troops to fight the Islamic extremists. There have been promises, but no troop movements have yet been publicly announced.
Early Monday, an intelligence agent confirmed that shots rang out near the Diabaly military camp in what was still nominally government-held territory and that soon after, jets were heard overhead, followed by explosions. The agent insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
A Malian commander in the nearby town of Niono said the bombardments did not stop the Islamist fighters and that they occupied Alatona, and on Monday, they succeeded in reaching the north-south road which connects Diabaly to Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali.
In another setback, Le Drian said a second French commando who went missing during a bungled attempt to rescue a hostage in Somalia, on the other side of Africa, was most likely killed during the operation. The Somali insurgent group al-Shabab, which like the Islamists in Mali are linked to al-Qaida, later posted on Twitter two photos of a man wearing military pants and a blood-soaked shirt surrounded by two guns, ammunition clips and protective gear.
In a possible reference to the photo, Le Drian said France believed that al-Shabab group was preparing a "macabre and disgraceful" display of the dead soldiers' bodies.
The Islamist advance in central Mali came even after fighter jets late Sunday began dropping bombs in the rice-growing region of Alatona. At that point, a rebel convoy had been spotted 40 kilometers (24 miles) southeast of Diabaly, until recently the site of a major, U.S.-funded Millenium Challenger Corporation project.