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French airstrikes push back Islamists in central Mali

SEGOU, Mali — Malian and French troops appeared to recapture two important central Malian towns Monday, pushing back an advance by Islamist militants who have overrun the country's northern half.

French soldiers in armored vehicles rolled through the town of Diabaly, about 275 miles from the capital, Bamako, to cheers from residents.

Islamist fighters overran Diabaly a week ago, the closest they have come to Bamako. Worried that there was little to stop them from rolling into the capital, where many French citizens live, France stepped into the fight.

Suddenly a long-simmering standoff with the Islamist groups holding the north had been transformed into a war involving French forces, the kind of event the West hoped to avoid. U.S. officials have long warned that Western involvement could stir anti-Western sentiment and provoke terrorist attacks, a fear that seemed to be realized when militants stormed a gas facility in Algeria last week, resulting in the deaths of 37 foreign hostages.

Even after French forces entered the fight in Mali, driving back the Islamists would prove more difficult than officials initially suggested. Rather than flee, many of the militants in Diabaly seemed to dig in, taking over homes and putting the civilian population in the crossfire.

But they eventually fled Friday morning, residents said, in the face of the relentless airstrikes.

Militants have also abandoned the town of Douentza, which they held for several months, the Associated Press reported.

French airstrikes push back Islamists in central Mali 01/21/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 21, 2013 10:38pm]
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