Diabaly represents an especially symbolic victory for the Islamists. It was in the military camp inside the town that 16 Muslim preachers from the fundamentalist Islamic sect, the Dawa which originated in India, were massacred by Malian government forces four months ago.
The group of bearded men were unarmed, and were heading to a religious conference in the capital.
Many of the leaders of the extremist groups occupying northern Mali began their path to jihad by adhering to the Dawa interpretation of Islam, which calls on the faithful to act as missionaries. One such missionary was Hamaha, who traveled to France a decade ago in order to preach the austere version of Islam in mosques.
It is unclear what happened to the Malian soldiers based at the Diabaly camp. Hamaha told the AP that many are dead, and that others fled on foot.
A member of the Malian security force based in Bamako, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that an unknown number of soldiers were killed. A group of them escaped, fleeing north to the next small town, Dogofri. The man insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Two residents of the town of Sikasso, located on the Mali border with Ivory Coast, said the population came out to cheer the French military convoy, traveling from a base in Ivory Coast. It was unclear if they were headed to Diabaly or elsewhere.
Britain's Ministry of Defense confirmed Tuesday that their RAF C17 aircraft carrying French military personnel and supplies had arrived in the capital, Bamako.
There are already at least 800 French troops in Mali, with more arriving every day. More than a dozen nations have agreed to either send troops, or else supplies and logistical help to aid the effort in Mali.
The al-Qaida-linked groups control an area that is the size of France itself in northern Mali, a territory larger than even Afghanistan. They seized it in conjunction with other rebel groups nine months ago, and have imposed a brutal version of Islam.
Girls as young as 12 have been flogged for not covering up, as have pregnant and elderly women. The rich musical tradition of this part of the world has gone silent in the north, where even cellphone ringtones are banned.
Among the first targets of the French bombing raid was a building in the city of Gao that served as the headquarters of the Islamic police, which handed down punishments that included the amputation of the hands and feet of accused thieves.
Associated Press writers Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report from London and Sylvie Corbet from Paris.
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