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Islamists retreat in Mali as French continue to deploy

NIONO, Mali — Islamist rebels withdrew from their forward positions on both of Mali's war fronts Friday, an apparent sign that they'll be shifting tactics after heavy French aerial bombardment pounded their positions even in civilian residential areas.

The Malian military announced that it had regained control of Konna, the city whose fall last week prompted the French to send troops and air power to the West African nation.

The Islamists also pulled out of the town of Diabaly, which they had taken Monday, after days of intense aerial bombardment. Malian troops were expected to occupy the town Friday night.

Residents fleeing Diabaly said that they never saw any ground combat or French soldiers but that the air attack included jets and helicopters. Both officially and privately, local authorities said that as far as they knew, there had been no ground attack on Diabaly.

"Diabaly is free. There is not even a single rebel in Diabaly," said Seydou Traore, the prefect of the Niono region, which includes Diabaly. "I don't know if it is a tactical withdrawal or if they ran away. There was no ground fighting."

In Paris, a French military spokesman said the rebels abandoned Konna after a fierce aerial campaign that included 70 airstrikes. But the spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard, did not acknowledge the withdrawal from Diabaly, perhaps signaling the suddenness of the rebel departure. "There has been no action in Diabaly," he said.

Burkhard said that French troops had not engaged in close combat with the Islamists. "Only the French special forces have been in contact" with the enemy, primarily from the air, he said. There had been "no real fighting," he added.

He said that French troops were continuing to arrive in Bamako, the country's capital and that a company of French soldiers had been sent to Markala, about 160 miles north of the capital, to guard a crucial dam and to defend against Islamists attempting to move toward Bamako.

Islamists retreat in Mali as French continue to deploy 01/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 11:43pm]

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