SEGOU, Mali — American planes transported French troops and equipment to Mali, a U.S. military spokesman said Tuesday, as Malian and French forces pushed into the Islamist-held north.
The town of Douentza had been held by Islamist rebels for four months, located 120 miles northeast of Mopti, the previous line-of-control held by the Malian military in Mali’s narrow central belt. The Islamist fighters have controlled the vast desert stretches of northern Mali, with the weak government clinging to the south, since a military coup in the capital unleashed chaos in March.
French and Malian troops arrived in Douentza on Monday to find that the Islamists had retreated from it, said a resident, Sali Maiga. “The Malian military and the French army spent their first night and the people are very happy,” Maiga said Tuesday.
A curfew went into effect at 8 p.m., and no gunfire or other incidents were reported overnight, he said.
In September, a convoy of pickup trucks carrying bearded men entered Douentza, and in the months that followed, the Islamist extremists forced women to wear veils and enlisted children as young as 12 as soldiers in training.
French and Malian forces also took the town of Diabaly, which lies 120 miles west of Mopti, on Monday after Islamist fighters who had seized it a week earlier fled amid French air strikes.
The presence of Malian soldiers in the two towns marks tangible accomplishments for the French-led mission, which began on Jan. 11 after the rebels pushed south and threatened the capital, Bamako. But there are grave doubts that the Malian army will be able to hold newly recovered territory without foreign support. The coup disrupted the chain of command, and Malian soldiers last year repeatedly gave up towns to the insurgents while putting up little, or no, fight.
While fighting raged on the ground in Mali, officials in Brussels discussed plans for the future. The newly appointed head of the planned European Union military training mission, French Gen. Francois Lecointre, is already in Bamako assessing the situation.
A senior EU official in Brussels dismissed criticism that the bloc is doing too little. Taking territory is one thing; holding it is another — and that task, the official said, will fall to the Malian army. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of EU rules.
That means, the official said, that training and reorganizing the Malian army “is not something marginal, it’s something that’s right at the core.”
In addition, Kristalina Georgieva, the EU’s commissioner for international cooperation and humanitarian assistance, is currently in Bamako to discuss resuming financial assistance to the country. At issue: ways for the EU to support public administration, both in Bamako and in areas that are retaken.
As rebel forces leave, the EU official said, they will leave a vacuum — and that vacuum will need to be filled quickly.
Also, a conference of organizations involved in Mali— including the ECOWAS group of West African countries, the African Union and the UN — will likely be held in Brussels soon, perhaps Feb. 5, the official said. Also, a donor conference will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 29, seeking to raise about $400 million. Half of the money would go to ECOWAS and half to the Malians, the official said.
The EU also plans to help with counter-terrorism in Bamako, beefing up security of public buildings, not to mention its own offices, in Bamako.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has flown five C-17 flights into Bamako, delivering more than 80 French troops and 124 tons of equipment thus far in an ongoing airlift operation, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Tuesday. He said the United States is still considering a French request for U.S. aerial refueling support.
The U.S. C-17 transport planes began flights from the French base in Istres, France, to Bamako.
Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said selective air strikes were continuing against suspected rebel targets. He said the radical Islamist fighters have been trying to disperse in light of the French bombardments, and as such had become “less dangerous” than before.
In recent days, French fighter jets and helicopter gunships have conducted about a dozen sorties a day. France has about 3,150 troops now involved in the operation code-named Operation Serval in Mali, all but 1,000 of whom are currently deployed in the former French colony.
Gen. Ibrahima Dahirou, the head of Mali’s armed forces, told Radio France Internationale in an interview published on its Web site Tuesday that French air strikes have made all the difference so far.
The Malian military, he said, now has the objective of retaking all northern Mali, adding: “If the (air) support is significant, it won’t take more than a month for Gao and Timbuktu” to return to government control.
Dahirou also said Nigerian and Chadian forces, by passing through neighboring Niger, could reach Gao “within the month.” He said he expects the rebels to retreat to the hills of Aguelhoc, in Mali’s far northeast.
France said Monday about 1,000 African troops from Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Niger and Chad are now taking part in the military intervention. France hopes West African soldiers will eventually take the lead alongside Malian troops in securing the country.
Neighboring African countries are ultimately expected to contribute around 3,000 troops, but concerns about the mission have delayed some from sending what they have promised.
France got a new vote of confidence Tuesday as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised its intervention in Mali, saying dialogue is not now possible with the rebels. It came a day after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement, said he opposes France’s intervention.
Associated Press writers David Rising in Berlin; Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal; Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris; and Don Melvin in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.