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French and Malian troops have entered the key central Malian town of Diabaly, which has faced heavy air strikes and fighting since being seized by al-Qaeda-linked rebels a week ago, Al Jazeera reports. A convoy of about 30 armoured vehicles carrying some 200 French and Malian soldiers moved into the town on Monday at about 9 GMT, without meeting resistance. Diabaly, 350 km north of the capital Bamako, had harboured the main cluster of rebels south of the front-line towns of Mopti and Sevare until French airstrikes forced them to flee or attempt to blend in with locals, residents said. A colonel in the Malian army had said earlier that a “fringe of the Diabaly population adheres to the jihadists’ theories and we must be very careful in the coming hours”. French television footage from Diabaly has shown charred pick-up trucks abandoned by al Qaeda-linked rebels amid mud brick homes. One resident said the rebels had fled the town which was abandoned by many of its residents, and those remaining lacked food and other essentials. The French military has not yet declared control of the town. “They want to check the area for landmines, booby traps, before they can confidently say they have completely retaken that town from the rebels,” Rowland said. As French troops began a deployment towards the rebel-held north, moving into the strategic central towns of Niono and Sevare on Sunday, Paris said the aim of the 11-day old military offensive was total victory. “The goal is the total reconquest of Mali,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in televised remarks. “We will not leave any pockets” of resistance.
Rebels in Mali were reported Sunday to be abandoning some of their positions and converging on the mountainous region of Kidal, their northernmost bastion, 1,500 kilometres from Bamako and near the border with Algeria. Kidal was the first town seized by an amalgam of militants, some linked to al-Qaeda, and Tuareg separatist groups that started the rebellion in March last year. Al Jazeera’s Rowland said there are reports of further Tuareg defections from the rebels as they feel their rebellion has been “hijacked” by the al-Qaeda affilated groups. “The Tuareg have sensed which way the wind is blowing and they’re afraid of ending up on the wrong side as and when this conflict is resolved,” Rowland added. Meanwhile the planned deployment of nearly 6,000 African soldiers continued slowly into Bamako, hampered by cash and logistical constraints. Only 150 African troops had arrived by Sunday. Senegal, Benin and six other West African nations are contributing to the African mission which is expected to take over the baton from France, and Chad has also pledged 2,000 soldiers. In other developments, Islamist group in Nigeria, says it carried out an attack last week which killed two Nigerian troops as they prepared to deploy to Mali, the BBC reported. Ansaru said it targeted the troops because the Nigerian military was joining efforts to “demolish the Islamic empire of Mali”. The head of the Commission of regional west African bloc ECOWAS, Desire Kadre Ouedraogo, estimated the cost of an African offensive against the armed Islamist groups at about 500 million dollars. The European Union has pledged 50 million euros to the International Support Mission for Mali.