NIONO, Mali — Islamist militants appeared Thursday to have expanded their control in central Mali, occupying two villages after government troops abandoned their positions.
Refugees and local officials said the Islamists, who on Monday drove Malian troops from their garrison in the town of Diabaly, on Wednesday rolled into the village of Sokolo, northwest of Diabaly, without a fight after government troops withdrew.
The rebels also took control of the village of Dogofry, 9 miles north of Diabaly, when government troops pulled out after the fall of Diabaly.
That left Niono, an administrative center, as the government's most forward position, and the rallying point Thursday for a growing number of French ground troops who local officials anticipate may soon mount a push to retake Diabaly, 40 miles to the north.
"They had no choice but to withdraw," said local prefect, Seydou Traore, the top administrator for the area, about the government soldiers' decision to withdraw southward. "They cannot match the weapons the rebels have. We need help."
How soon a counteroffensive might come was unclear. Reports that the French ground forces had engaged in fighting with insurgents at Diabaly were exaggerated, fleeing residents said, and the size of the French force, numbering a few hundred troops at most, was smaller than the 1,000 or more Islamists that French officials in Paris have said are operating in the area.
Residents also reported that French airstrikes appear to be decreasing in both effectiveness and number. The air attacks hurt the rebels, said a group of four villagers who fled Diabaly on Thursday, but have not dislodged the Islamists from their positions.