Published : 2013-01-21 21:28
Updated : 2013-01-21 21:31
DIABALY, Mali (AP) -- About 200 French infantrymen supported by six combat helicopters and reconnaissance planes advanced Monday on the town of Diabaly, seized one week ago by Islamic extremists including fighters under the command of the mastermind of Algeria's recent terror attack.
Diabaly, a small bucolic town in central Mali, has been the scene of the first major battle in the war to retake northern Mali from bearded fighters who have occupied the region for nine months.
"The operation in Diabaly is currently ongoing,'' said Capt. Romain, the deputy in charge of France's 21st Marine Infantry regiment, positioned in the town of Markala about 85 miles (140 kilometers) from the front line.
Malian military officials reported late Saturday that they had recaptured the town after Islamists fled the town on foot, but French officials later said Sunday that the town had not been retaken.
As of midday Monday, Associated Press reporters said the town appeared to be under the control of Malian and French forces.
In the nearby countryside, life was returning to normal as well. Women here washed children in an irrigation canal, while others washed clothes and placed them to dry on the banks. Families with suitcases and bags headed north in donkey-drawn carts, apparently returning home after fleeing the conflict.
Residents of Diabaly have said that the Islamists fled the town of 35,000 people late last week following days of French air strikes targeting the militants.
The French military, which began its offensive on Jan. 11, said it again used fighter planes and helicopter gunships to carry out a dozen such operations in Mali over the weekend, targeting "terrorist vehicles'' in half of those strikes.
In an interview with France-5 TV, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the airstrikes had caused "significant'' _ though unspecified _ losses among the jihadists, and only minor skirmishes involved French forces on the ground.
Meanwhile, the extremist group behind the deadly hostage crisis in Algeria threatened more attacks against foreign targets if France does not bring an immediate halt to its military operation in Mali.