French-Malian Forces Recapture Two Towns From Islamist Militants

Malian forces have recaptured two central towns from Islamists militants after continued French air strikes forced the militants to retreat from the two urban centers, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced on Monday.

According to him, Malian security forces captured the towns of Diabaly and Douentza on Monday morning with the support of French forces currently deployed in the country to help Mali's government in retaking the country's northern regions from Islamist rebels, who have been controlling the area since April.

Le Drian noted in a statement released by the Defense Ministry that the latest development was "a certain military success" for Mali's government as well as the French forces engaged in the mission. He stressed that the French intervention was aimed at restoring "the sovereignty of Mali on its territory" and preventing northern Mali from becoming a "terrorist sanctuary in the heart of Africa."

His remarks came 11 days after French military intervention in Mali. Notably, Le Drian had said in televised remarks on Sunday that France was seeking "total reconquest" of northern Mali without leaving "any pockets" of resistance.

Currently, there are nearly 1,800 French soldiers in Mali, a former French colony, to help the country's government in its fight against Islamist rebels. France is soon expected to increase its troop strength to 2,500.

Malian President Dioncounda Traore had requested the U.N. and France for assistance after Islamist rebels captured several towns in central Mali and advanced further into the government-controlled south from their stronghold in the country's north.

Subsequently, France intervened in the conflict after the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) urged members "to provide assistance to the Malian Defense and Security Forces in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups."

Soon after France began its military mission in Mali on January 11, Islamist rebels captured Diabaly. This prompted the French forces to carry out air strikes on Diabaly and Konna, another central town seized by the Islamists in the initial stages of their advance towards capital Bamako. The French intervention has halted the rebel advance and led to the recapture of Konna.

In addition to French troops, a 100-strong African force consisting mainly of soldiers from Togo, Senegal and Nigeria arrived in Mali early last week to assist the French and Malian troops. Nigeria has indicated that its will soon increase its troop strength in Mali to 1,200.

The regional troops currently in Mali are part of a long-planned West African force to be deployed in the country. A total of 3,300 West African troops, led by Nigeria, will soon be deployed in Mali under a UNSC resolution for retaking the country's northern regions from "terrorist, extremist and armed groups."

Apart from Nigeria, other West African nations like Chad, Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged to send their troops to Mali as part of the regional force. Further, Britain and the United States have agreed to provide France with logistical military assistance during its intervention in Mali without getting directly involved in the conflict.

Islamist militants and Mali's Tuareg rebels captured most of the country's northern region in April 2012 amid the chaos triggered by a military coup. But their alliance quickly collapsed after the Islamists marginalized the Tuareg rebels and consolidated their positions in the north.

Islamist militants have since been enforcing Islamic laws across the region under their control. According to the U.N., the conflict as well as drought and political instability have forced more than 412,000 people to flee Northern Mali in recent months.

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