UPDATE HEADLINE, INTRO AND AGENCY AS WELL
FRENCH TROOPS TAKE TOWN IN CENTRAL MALI AS REBELS SLIP AWAY
MALI/ (TV, PIX)
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* French armoured column enters central town
* Risk of guerrilla-style counter-attacks
* Islamists seen arriving in Timbuktu - residents
By Bate Felix
DIABALY, Mali, Jan 21 (Reuters) - French and Malian armoured columns rolled into the central Mali town of Diabaly on Monday after the al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who seized it a week ago melted into the bush to avoid air strikes.
Diabaly, 350 km (220 miles) north of Mali’s dusty riverside capital Bamako, had harboured the main cluster of insurgents south of the frontline towns of Mopti and Sevare.
Residents said some of the rebels had abandoned their flowing robes to blend in with the local population. The charred and twisted wreckage of their pick up trucks littered the sandy streets between mud-brick buildings.
“French and Malian forces have advanced to Diabaly and they will continue their mission of securing the town,” the deputy commander of Malian forces in nearby Niono, who gave his name only as Captain Samasa, told Reuters.
The French commander in the region warned of the risk of mines and booby traps in the insurgents’ wake. The region around Diabaly has long been a hub for al Qaeda-linked cells believed to have camps in the Ouagadou forest near Mauritania’s border.
France has deployed 2,000 ground troops and its war planes pounded rebel columns and bases in Mali for an 11th day on Monday. Its intervention turned back a column of Islamist rebels heading towards Bamako that threatened to topple Mali’s government.
France now aims, with international support, to dislodge the Islamists from Mali’s vast desert north, an area the size of Texas, before they use it to launch attacks on the West.
The Islamist alliance, grouping al Qaeda’s North Africa wing AQIM and the home-grown Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA, has imposed harsh sharia law in northern Mali, including amputations and the destruction of ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Sunday French Rafale and Mirage planes had bombed Islamist camps and logistics bases around the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu as well as Gao, the largest city of the north. The strikes were aimed at preventing Islamists launching a counter-attack.
A resident of Timbuktu told Reuters by satellite telephone on Monday that scores of pickup trucks carrying Islamist fighters had arrived there since Saturday, as the rebels apparently pulled their forces towards their desert strongholds.
The information could not be independently confirmed.
Islamist militants cited France’s intervention in Mali as their reason for attacking a desert gas plant in neighbouring Algeria, seizing hundreds of hostages. The death toll reached at least 80 after Algerian troops stormed the complex at the weekend.
Veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility in the name of al Qaeda for the Algeria attack, Mauritanian news website Sahara Media said on Sunday. His Mulathameen Brigade has warned it will carry out further attacks on foreign interests in the region unless the war in Mali stops. (Additional reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Janet Lawrence)