French and Malian troops have retaken the town of Diabaly in central Mali from Islamist militants.
A witness in Diabaly told reporters that the town was retaken on Monday, a week after Islamist fighters seized control. Reports from the area say armored vehicles carrying French and Malian soldiers entered the town with no resistance, after days of French airstrikes.
Residents say Islamists either fled the town or are attempting to blend in with the local population.
French forces said they were searching for landmines or explosive devices.
French forces intervened in Mali 10 days ago, amid fears that militants who control northern Mali were pushing toward the capital, Bamako. Diabaly, located 400 kilometers north of the capital, marked the militants’ closest approach to the city so far.
In Paris Monday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French and Malian forces have also retaken the town of Douentza.
On Sunday, Le Drian said France will accept nothing less than the “total reconquest” of Mali from Islamist militants.
Troops from Nigeria, Togo, Niger and Benin are also in Mali as part of an African intervention force.
Abdel Fatau Musah, external relations director for the Economic Community of West African States, told VOA Monday that the international community needs to provide financial and logistical support for ECOWAS forces. He says this is “not a time to hold back.”
“The whole conflict has been internationalized because of the whole issue of this criminal network, this terrorist network, that threatens not only West Africa but also the international community,” he said. “France itself has acknowledged that it needs West African troops on the ground to make its air force worthwhile.”
A French to Africa correspondent Idrissa Fall is in Sevare, close to the fighting in central Mali. On Sunday, he described the town as being in a “state of war” with streets overrun by French and Malian military forces while empty of civilians.
Sevare has a strategically important airport which could serve as a base for further operations in the north.
Fall says the French military is giving little information to residents in the north, creating a sense of panic. He reports phone lines to the city of Gao have been down for more than a week.
The extremists seized control of northern Mali after renegade soldiers toppled the government in March, leaving a temporary power vacuum. The militants have imposed harsh conservative Islamic law across the north. France is Mali’s former colonial ruler and still has economic and political interests there