French air power appears to be having the desired effect after reports that Islamist rebels have fled a second town in central Mali. Local officials said government troops were now in control of Diabaly.
The apparent recapture of the central town came just days after the rebels had overrun it in a counteroffensive against government troops.
"Diabaly is freed, the Islamists have left and the French and Malian troops have entered the town," a member of the municipal council told the AFP news agency on Friday.
A Malian military source confirmed the story to Reuters, saying the rebels had "fled the town dressed as civilians."
The city's mayor, Oumar Diakite said government troops were carrying out mopping-up operations in the town and that local residents had recovered some of the rebels' abandoned weapons.
"There are lots of burned-out vehicles that the Islamists tried to hide in the orchards," he said.
Although all indications from Malian sources were that Diabaly had been recaptured, the French Defense Ministry was far less definitive, with a spokesman saying there was "no fighting going on at this time."
The development follows the recapture of another central town, Konna, reported late on Thursday. Malian troops are reported to have retaken Konna with the help of French airstrikes. France, which launched its military intervention in response to the fall of Konna to the rebels a week ago, now has 1,800 soldiers on the ground in Mali, and is expected to increase the deployment to a maximum of 2,500 troops.
French President Francois Hollande had ordered the deployment, fearing that rebels could sweep from Konna through to the capital, Bamako, and create what he described as a “terrorist state.”
The French soldiers are expected to quickly hand over control of the mission to the West African ECOWAS bloc, which, under a United Nations mandate, is to deploy as many as 3,300 troops to recapture northern Mali from the Islamists.
The first troops from Togo and Nigeria arrived in the country on Thursday.
German transport planes bound for Bamako
Germany, which has pledged logistical support to Mali, has sent two Transall C-160 military planes to help transport troops fighting against the rebels. The two aircraft, carrying medical supplies, were expected to arrive in Bamako on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concerns about growing numbers of people displaced by the fighting.
"Our new planning basis allows for additional displacement of up to 300,000 people inside Mali and 407,000 into neighbouring countries," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
Current figures put the number of displaced within Mali at 229,000, with 147,000 having fled beyond the country's borders.
pfd/lw (AFP, Reuters, dpa)