Bintou Keita hasn’t decided whether she will return to her home in Diabaly a week after French airstrikes drove Islamist fighters from the town.
“All night, we could hear the bombing and the gunfire, but the Islamists had closed the road so we couldn’t leave,” the 60-year-old mother of four said as she sat on a thin mattress at her brother-in-law’s house in the nearby town of Niono. “In Mali, we’ve never before experienced things like that. The walls of my house were trembling.”
French and Malian forces pushed back Islamist rebels from Diabaly, 425 kilometers (264 miles) north of the capital, Bamako, and three other towns this week. They’re fighting to rid an area the size of France of a loose alliance of rebel groups seeking to impose a strict version of Islamic law.
France intervened on Jan. 11 after the Islamist fighters overran the town of Konna, sparking concern they might advance toward Bamako. The French Defense Ministry said today that 2,500 soldiers have arrived in the landlocked West African country, which gained independence from France in 1960. African nations are deploying a force that may total as many as 3,300, soldiers.
The Malian army was driven out of Diabaly on Jan. 14 by men “wearing pants rolled up below the knee” and speaking French and at least two local languages, Keita said.
She and other women in the town were told to cover their hair with a veil. Days into the siege, the Islamists hid in residents’ houses and parked pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns in her neighbors’ mud-walled compounds. “Thank god they didn’t come to our house,” she said.
Keita said she watched the rebels execute a neighbor after he refused to greet them and saw two bodies of Malian soldiers “dumped along the canal.”
As soon as she could, Keita and her family fled to Niono, joining at least 11,000 people who have been forced from their homes by the recent fighting, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. About 230,000 have been displaced since the crisis began, the agency said on Jan. 22.
The insurgents took control of northern Mali, including the historic town of Timbuktu, after a coup in March last year by government soldiers complaining that they hadn’t received weapons and vehicles to fight the rebels.
Mali’s army is in disarray and is ill-equipped to combat the militants, who were boosted by heavy weapons and fighters who arrived in the aftermath of the 2011 civil war in neighboring Libya, said a Malian army official who declined to be identified because he didn’t want to publicly criticize the military.
The chain of command was disrupted by the coup, the official said. Troops, who now number about 8,000 compared with 10,000 before the coup, use decade-old weapons and equipment, he said, and many new recruits receive less than three months training.
Army spokesman Colonel Diarran Kone declined to comment on the allegations. “I don’t know who is saying that, there is no point in responding,” he said today by phone from Bamako.
Amid charges by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights that some Malian soldiers have carried out summary executions, the government urged the military in a statement yesterday to show “strict respect of human rights.”
Kone said the army has “clear rules of engagement” and that groups alleging rights abuses “need to provide evidence.”
French and Malian troops yesterday took control of the town of Hombori, about 250 kilometers from the rebel-held town of Gao, Kone said.
Mali vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-largest producer of gold, with AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. among the companies operating in the country. It ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the UN Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.
Its $10.6 billion economy contracted 4.5 percent last year as the occupation of the north disrupted agricultural output and led to a virtual collapse of tourism as Islamists expanded their control, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The economy is forecast to expand 3 percent in 2013, partly because gold mining hasn’t been affected by the conflict, the IMF said on Nov. 14.
In Niono, Keita’s brother-in-law, Cheick Omar Diallo, said he heard that young men attacked a shop in a nearby village because the owner was suspected of sympathizing with the Islamists.
“These kinds of rumors are hard to confirm,” he said. “There is no witch hunt here. This is a small town. We all know each other. Nobody likes the rebels.”
The land around Diabaly, a rice producing area, is part of the largest irrigation scheme in West Africa, deriving water from the nearby French-built Markala dam, according to Wetlands International, a Wageningen, the Netherlands-based environmental research group.
French and Malian troops are also stationed there, with their armored vehicles overlooking the river and parked under baobab trees.
In the town itself, the open-air market has re-opened, Moussa Kane, a resident, said today by phone.
“They are searching a lot of houses,” he said. “There is a large number of Malian and French forces, and some of them seem to be moving north.”