BAMAKO, Mali — Backed by French airstrikes, Malian forces appeared close to recapturing a key central town in Mali where bands of al-Qaida-linked fighters had holed up, France's defense minister said Sunday.
The French military has spent the past nine days helping the West African nation of Mali quash a jihadist rebellion in its vast northern desert. The comments from Jean-Yves Le Drian, however, appeared to cast some doubt on local military claims that the town of Diabaly had already been recaptured from the Islamists.
The town of 35,000, which hosts an important military camp, was taken over by al-Qaida-linked militants last week.
"Right now, the town of Diabaly is not retaken," Le Drian told France-5 TV. "(But) everything leads us to believe Diabaly is going to head in the positive direction in the coming hours."
The French military said its fighter planes and helicopter gunships had carried out a dozen operations in the previous 24 hours — half of them to strike "terrorist vehicles." The report came late Sunday in a statement on the military's website.
Previously, Mali's military had claimed the government was back in control of Diabaly — a potential breakthrough in the French-led campaign to oust extremists there.
The contrasting accounts were emblematic of the confusion in the embattled West African country. French forces opened an air campaign on Jan. 11 and have been building up troop levels to help restore government control in central and northeast Mali, a former French colony.
A French statement said about 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 arrived in Mali, Le Drian said.