DIABALY, Mali (AP) — French and Malian troops took control Monday of the town of Diabaly, patrolling the streets in armored personnel carriers and inspecting the charred remains of a pickup truck with a mounted machine gun left behind by the fleeing militants.
The armed Islamist fighters from northern Mali seized Diabaly a week ago, making it the southernmost town they held. But they left after days of being pounded by French airstrikes, a tangible victory for the French intervention forces.
The military operation is aimed at stopping the Islamists from encroaching toward the capital in Mali's south from their strongholds in the vast, desert north of Mali where they amputate the hands of thiefs and force women to wear veils.
Diabaly, located about 320 miles (460 kilometers) north of the capital, 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."
Islamists had seized the town just days after the French began their military operation on Jan. 11.
Malian military officials reported late Saturday that they had retaken the town after Islamists fled, but French officials later said Sunday that the town had not been recaptured.
On Monday, about 200 French infantrymen supported by six combat helicopters and reconnaissance planes made their way to Diabaly.
Associated Press reporters saw French troops in camouflage uniforms take up positions in front of a Malian military camp in the town on Monday. About six burned out cars lay in ruins on the outskirts of town.
The Islamist fighters had insinuated themselves with civilians before leaving, so there was a possibility that some had remained. Malian soldiers on Diabaly's outskirts set up a roadblock south of the town where they checked the identity papers of travelers.
In an interview with France-5 TV, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the air strikes 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.
In a statement, the Masked Brigade warned of more such attacks against any country backing France's military intervention in Mali.
"We promise all the countries that participated in the Crusader campaign ... that we will carry out more operations if they do not reverse their decision," it said, according to a transcript released by SITE Intelligence Group.
France has said that African nations must take the lead though it could be some weeks before they are ready to do so.
On Sunday, France 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.
A top official with the West African regional bloc said Sunday the cost of the African intervention could top $500 million.
ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, who gave an interview to state television in Ivory Coast, said the initial estimate "may vary depending on the needs" of the mission and the situation on the ground.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Segou, Mali; Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal; and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.
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