French troops in armoured personnel carriers rolled through the streets of Diabaly on Monday, winning praise from residents of this besieged town after Malian forces retook control of it with French help a week after radical Islamists invaded.
The Islamists also have deserted the town of Douentza, which they had held since September, according to a local official who said French and Malian forces arrived there on Monday as well.
The militants' occupation of Diabaly marked their deepest encroachment into government-held territory, and Monday's retaking of the town is a significant victory for the French-led intervention.
Diabaly, located about 320 miles (460 kilometres) north of the capital of Bamako, fell into rebel hands on Jan. 14. Residents said those who fled in the aftermath were forced to escape on foot through rice fields.
"We are truly really grateful to the French who came in the nick of time," said Gaoussou Kone, 34, the head of a local youth association. "Without the French, not only would there no longer be a Diabaly, there would soon no longer be a Mali. These people wanted to go all the way to Bamako."
On Monday, all that remained of the Islamists were the charred shells of their vehicles destroyed by the French air strikes. Three of them were clustered in one location, the machine-gun cannon of one still pointing skyward.
The cluster of rebel vehicles was directly in front of the home of an elderly man, Adama Nantoume, who said the French bombs started falling at around 11 p.m. the same day that the Islamists occupied Diabaly.
"I was at home, sitting like this against the wall," he said, showing how he had hugged his knees to his chest in a fetal position. "The plane came and the bombs started to fall. After that, I saw that the cars had caught on fire. And the explosions were so loud that for awhile I thought I had gone deaf. I was suffocated by the smoke and the light burned my eyes. The gas made me cry."
Islamists had seized Diabaly just days after the French began their military operation on Jan. 11. The offensive is aimed at stopping the Islamists from encroaching toward the capital in Mali's south from their strongholds in the vast, desert north where they have been amputating the hands of thieves and forcing women to wear veils over the last nine months.
France has said that 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 have arrived, Le Drian said.