By Rukmini Callimachi and Baba Ahmed
Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents have grabbed more territory in Mali, including a strategic military camp, bringing them much closer to the capital Bamako, French and Malian military officials said.
Early Monday, the al-Qaida-linked extremists cut off the road leading to the garrison town of Diabaly. By afternoon they succeeded in overrunning the town and overtaking the military base, located around 160 kilometres north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday. The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the region of Segou, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety.
The French military, which began battling the extremists in northern Mali on Friday, expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat. But the intense assault including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who now are only 400 kilometres from the capital Bamako, in the far south. Before France sent in its forces on Friday, the closest known spot the Islamists were to the capital was 680 kilometres away, in the town of Konna.
France's defence minister said Monday the rebels "took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn't hold them back."
The Malian military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency began almost a year ago in the West African nation. The Islamist fighters control the north and had been blocked in Mali's narrow waist in the central part of the landlocked nation. They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces.
Mali's government has imposed a state of emergency, giving broader powers to the security forces. Mauritania lies to the northwest of Mali and its armed forces have been put on high alert. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso has sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks.
Many of Mali's neighbours, who had been pushing for a military intervention to flush out the jihadists, had argued that airstrikes by sophisticated French or Western aircrafts would be no match for the mixture of rebel groups occupying northern Mali, and imposing a severe form of Islam that attempts to replicate the religion practiced during the time of the Prophet Mohamed. Leaders of ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, stressed that the north of Mali is mostly desert, and that it would be easy to pick off the convoys of rebel vehicles.
Monday's surprise assault, and the downing of a French combat helicopter by rebel fire last Friday, is now giving many pause. Monday morning, a commander at the military post in Niono, the town immediately south of Diabaly, laughed on the phone, and confidently asserted that the Islamists would never take Niono. By afternoon, the major, who could not be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly, sounded almost desperate. "We feel truly threatened," he said.
He explained that the rebels had reached Diabaly from the east, infiltrating the rice-growing region of Alatona, which until recently was the site of a large US-funded Millenium Challenge Corporation project. French aircraft bombed a rebel convoy located 40 kilometres from Diabaly late Sunday night, the commander said. "This morning we woke up and realized that the enemy was still there. They cut off the road to Diabaly. We are truly surprised - astonished," he said.
What is unclear is what happened to the Malian troops based at the military camp in Diabaly. The commander said that since the Islamists seized the town, he had not been able to reach any of the officers at the base.
An adviser to the president of Ivory Coast, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said that President Alassane Ouattara had authorised a contingent of Ivorian troops to enter Mali, and head to Segou. "They are going to quickly encircle them," said the official.
However, the French national who was being evacuated on Monday from Segou said that the email she had received from the French Embassy indicated that small groups of rebel fighters were heading to Segou from Diabaly.
The Islamists in northern Mali have long said that if France attacked them, they would strike back at French interests all over Africa and beyond. On Monday, the commander of one of the al-Qaida offshoots in northern Mali dared the French to keep attacking them.
French radio Europe 1 broadcast the telephone interview with Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, in which he told the French to "come down on the ground if they're real men. We'll welcome them with open arms," he said. "France has opened the gates of hell ... it has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."
Mali's north, an area the size of France itself, was occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels last April, following a coup in the capital. For nearly as long, the international community has debated what to do. In December, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a military intervention, but only after an exhaustive list of pre-emptive measures were fulfilled, starting with training the Malian military, a process diplomats said would take at least nine more months.
All of that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south, one on the mostly east-west axis of Douentza to the garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, and a second heading from a locality north of Diabaly toward Segou.
Had either Segou or Mopti fallen, many feared that the Islamists could advance toward the capital.
French President Francois Hollande deployed 550 French troops to Mali and authorized the airstrikes which began Friday, initially concentrated in the north. The French are using Mirage jets stationed in Chad, which are able to carry 250-kilogram bombs. They are also using Gazelle helicopter gunships and the Rafale jet, based in France. Britain over the weekend authorized sending several C-17 transport planes to help France bring more troops. The United States is sending drones, as well as communications and logistical support.
Since seizing control of Mali's upper half, the Islamists have imposed an austere form of Islam, foreign to the people of Mali, who have long practiced a moderate religion. They have cut off the hands and feet of thieves, in public spectacles that have left outdoor squares awash in blood. Women live with increasingly less freedom, and are required to fully cover themselves. They have been flogged and whipped for offenses ranging from wearing eye shadow or perfume, to not covering their heads.