Officials in Mali have indicated that following French airstrikes, Islamist fighters have withdrawn from two strategic towns located in the central region of the country. Earlier in the day, the Malian army had announced that it had recaptured the town of Konna, which had initially triggered the French intervention after it was seized by rebels last week. This news was confirmed by residents in Konna who have reported that the Islamists fled the town when the Malian soldiers were deployed. Furthermore, a security source has indicated that Malian soldiers were backed by French air strikes which eased their entry into the town. Now reports have confirmed that another major town, Diabaly, has also been recaptured by the army. On Thursday, reports had confirmed that French forces were bombing Diabaly and that fighting on the streets had continued until 03:00 GMT on Friday. Since then, Diabaly Mayor Oumar Diakite has confirmed that Islamists were reported to be leaving the town and that currently soldiers are in Diabaly in order to carry out security operations. Although the towns are now under the control of the French and Malian armies, the area remains to be unaccessible to independent observers. Aid group Doctors Without Borders has indicated that over the past week, it has been attempting to reach Konna however all the roads that lead to the are have been closed off by the Malian army. So far, no reports have been released as to when these roads will be re-opened.
The recapture of these two towns comes one day after the first one hundred troops of the African force landed in the capital city of Bamako. The soldiers, who are from Nigeria and Togo, are part of a long-planned West African force that will join the fighting alongside the French and Malian armies. In total, regional powers have pledged some 5,800 troops for the African military force. Also on Friday, Spain announced that it will provide military training personnel and a transport plane for the African troops however it did note that the country will not take part in the combat operations. Over the past twenty-four hours, France has increased its troops in Mali to 1,800 while Nigeria has indicated that it will increased its forces to 1,200. Furthermore, sources have indicated that a strong French contingent is currently at Segou, which is located north-east of Bamako. They have been stationed their in order to guard a major bridge which crosses the Niger river. The bridge is a strategic point as the rebels would have to cross it in order to threaten the capital city.
With the week-old intervention in Mali seeing some progress, the United Nation’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has highlighted its fears that over the coming months, the fighting could force some 700,000 people from their homes. The crisis in Mali has already resulted in some 150,000 people leaving and moving to neighbouring countries. A report by the UNHCR indicates that a further 400,000 people could flee Mali, while an estimated 300,000 people would be displaced within the country.