By BABA AHMED and KRISTA LARSON, Associated Press
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Backed by French air strikes, Malian forces appeared close to recapturing a key central town in Mali where bands of al-Qaida-linked fighters had holed up, France's defense minister said Sunday.
The French military has spent the last nine days helping the West African nation of Mali quash a jihadist rebellion in its vast northern desert. The comments Sunday from Jean-Yves Le Drian, however, appeared to cast some doubt on local military claims that the town of Diabaly had already been recaptured from the Islamists.
The town of 35,000, which hosts an important military camp, was taken over by al-Qaida-linked militants last week.
"Right now, the town of Diabaly is not retaken," Le Drian told France-5 TV. "(But) everything leads us to believe Diabaly is going to head in the positive direction in the coming hours."
The French military said its fighter planes and helicopter gunships had carried out a dozen operations in the previous 24 hours — half of them to strike "terrorist vehicles." The report came late Sunday in a statement on the military's Web site.
Previously, Mali's military had claimed the government was back in control of Diabaly — a potential breakthrough in the French-led campaign to oust extremists there.
The contrasting accounts were emblematic of the confusion in the embattled West African country, where French forces opened an air campaign on Jan. 11 and have been building up troop levels to help restore government control in central and northeast Mali.
The zone around Diabaly remains blocked off by a military cordon and it is not possible to independently verify the information.
Video obtained by The Associated Press from Diabaly on Saturday showed burned-out vehicles, scattered bullets and several armored vehicles belonging to the Malian army lying abandoned and damaged along roadsides. Displaced residents and Malian officials described how Islamists fled the town on foot after days of French airstrikes that destroyed their vehicles.
For government supporters, the incursion signaled an alarming drive by the jihadists into central Mali — and closer to the capital of Bamako — from the base they have established in the country's vast northeast. The Islamists captured the Texas-sized northeastern expanse nine months ago, exploiting a power vacuum after a military coup in the distant capital.
Also Sunday, French forces extended their deployment northward from the central town of Markala, reinforcing their presence in the towns of Niono and Mopti, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman.
The French statement said some 400 troops from Nigeria, Togo and Benin had arrived Sunday in Bamako to help train an African force for Mali. Troops from Chad, who are considered hardened fighters familiar with the desert-like terrain of northern Mali, also arrived in Mali, Le Drian said.
Overall, Le Drian said the French-led campaign against the militants was making progress. He said he wasn't aware of any civilian casualties and said the air strikes had caused "significant" — though unspecified — losses among the jihadists, and only minor skirmishes involved French forces on the ground.
Still, as they work to root out the jihadists and secure local populations, French and Malian forces also have to contend with some villagers who are backing the rebels.
"The war against the Islamists is not at all easy and there's a very small part of the population which is helping their cause," said Col. Seydou Sogoba, the Malian force commander in the Niono region. "That is what is making the fight against them tough."
France, which has received logistical support from Western allies and intelligence from the United States, ultimately hopes that troops from West African regional bloc ECOWAS will take the lead alongside Malian troops in securing the country, a former French colony.
Neighboring African countries are expected to contribute around 3,000 troops but concerns about the French mission have delayed several nations from sending their promised troops.
A donors' conference for the U.N.-backed Mali mission is being held in Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa on Jan. 29.